By Brian Lafferty
November 1, 2013 (San Diego) -- If there are any contemporary filmmakers more daring than Steve McQueen, I'm hard pressed to name one. His first film, Hunger (2008), starred Michael Fassbender as Bobby Sands, the Irish Republican Army Volunteer who led a hunger strike in a British prison and died in 1981. He followed it up with Shame (2011), which also starred Fassbender, this time as a yuppie with a grossly unhealthy sex addiction. The MPAA gave it an NC-17 rating for its frank and explicit depiction of sexual acts, and rightfully so, but Fox Searchlight left it as is.
It's one thing to be bold, or to tackle a controversial subject few, if any, people or production companies will touch with a pole of any length. It's another to make a movie worthy of such boldness. Shame did; I was so emotionally affected by it, I had to be consoled by another critic following the screening.
12 Years a Slave, which opened the 2013 San Diego Film Festival, is a masterpiece of storytelling, cinematography, and acting, carried out with a relentlessly uncompromising rawness from all involved. For almost two years, I couldn't figure out why Shame affected me as emotionally as it did. It was only after I wrote the first sentence of this paragraph that the answer dawned on me. It's funny how that happens.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads a happy, married, and free life in upstate New York. That life is shattered into an incalculable number of pieces when two men abduct him and sell him into slavery. His first owner is Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford is actually kind and sympathetic, but one of his aggressively racist workers (Paul Dano) is ready to kill Northup after Solomon messes him up in a fight. Consequently, Ford sells him to a nasty plantation owner (Fassbender) and his equally nasty Southern Belle wife (Sarah Paulson).
The racism in 12 Years is psychologically taxing to sit through. The two kidnappers tell a chained Northup that his name isn't Solomon Northrup, that he's not a free man, that he's not married with children, and other lies. When Northup refuses to admit the "truth" of these lies, he's paddled hard on the back for what feels like ten minutes, but is in actuality only less than five.
Sean Bobbitt's photography is quite revealing in illustrating the differences between the North and South. Upstate New York resembles Georges Seurat's A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The South in 12 Years is a virtual prison, bleakly colored and ugly, where there's no escape and there’s not a single white person who can be trusted. It's shocking how half of the United States felt that this way of life was "normal.”
Ejiofor is the focus, but the performances of the supporting cast cannot be ignored, however little screen time they're allotted. Dano, on screen for 15 to 20 minutes at the very most, is full of hateful bile. The first day of work for the slaves is set to song containing a streamline of racial epithets, but that's not what's most frightening. What's most horrifying is how the rhythm and beat of the song and lyrics, in conjunction with the timing of Dano's singing, uncomfortably gels with the montage of the slaves working in the hot and humid marshes.
Fassbender and Paulson are no better. Both have a knack of being despicably hateful while putting on happy faces and pretending to be nice about it. Fassbender's performance is one of instability, making his character that much more predictable. I kept getting the feeling he could snap at any minute and kill Northup, or at the very least inflict some major bodily injury on him.
Through it all, Ejiofor delivers one of the year's best pieces of acting. Defiant, brave, and unafraid to take his character to the limit, will be hard to forget this awards season, which is not too far away. It's rare to see an actor so fully in control of his character. Despite the beatings, whippings, near-lynchings, and endless invectives leveled at him, Northup is dignity personified.
12 Years a Slave is currently playing in limited release in San Diego.
A Fox Searchlight release. Director: Steve McQueen. Screenplay: John Ridley, based on the novel “12 Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup. Original Music: Hans Zimmer. Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodard. 134 minutes. Rated R.
Brian Lafferty is an award-winning film critic and assistant editor currently living in San Diego and graduated with a B.A. in Radio-TV-Film from California State University, Fullerton. In 2013, he won a San Diego Press Club Award for his film criticism, taking third place for his review of Before Midnight. He welcomes letters at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also follow him on Twitter: @BrianLaff.