12 Years A Slave shows off remarkable performances from old, new actors alike

By Jeffrey Robinowitz

Although 12 Years A Slave deals with a difficult subject, to avoid this film because of its content would be as ignorant and unfortunate as the subject with which it deals. It’s the kind of film that comes along and deeply affects every single person who sees it. I can’t promise it’ll make KKK members shed their robes and sing “We Are The World,” but it will certainly make you sit down and think about what we were and what we still are. It hits you with so much power and force that no other thoughts will occupy your mind for a good 15 to 20 minutes after the credits roll.

The star-studded supporting cast includes Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt, and each actor makes the most the of the limited time he is given.

Cameo appearance by Beasts of the Southern Wild co-stars Quvenzhané Wallis, as Solomon’s daughter Margaret Northup, and Dwight Henry, as Uncle Abram, are also worth watching. Even Saturday Night Live actor Taran Killam’s small performance as one of the two men who kidnap and sell Northup is great.

As Edwin Epps, the cruel slave master who owns Northup for the majority of his servitude, Michael Fassbender is a relentless monster. He is cruel beyond measure, intolerably hateful, and completely self-assured. Normally such characters fail to capture an audience member’s attention because they just keep repeating the same tricks, but, much like Hannibal Lector, Jigsaw, and even the Joker, Epps never runs out of ways to abuse people. Just when you think he’s done the worst thing a human can do to a living creature, he finds a way to outdo himself.

However, the two true winners of the cast are Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. Despite this being Ejiofor’s first major starring role and Nyong’o first role ever, both actors showcase abilities few actors can ever provide in an entire career.

Ejiofor conveys the incredible self-restraint Northup must have demonstrated in order to survive with palpable energy. The patience Ejiofor creates in Northup as he battles the desire to reveal his identity and waits for his opportunity is truly a wonder to behold. Even Northup’s constant yet completely justifiable river of tears never once feels phony or melodramatic.

Nyong’o, as the idolized slave at the center of Epps’ fixation, is almost too good to believe. Much like Ejiofor, her character demands unbelievable restraint, as Patsey doesn’t speak for the majority of her screen time. Instead, Nyong’o uses her body and facial expression to express the immense pain and suffering her character endures. Once Nyong’o does begin to speak, her performance only becomes more captivating.

The film’s writing is also superb. Northup’s dialogue walks the very fine line between brilliant and overly-dramatic excellently. He frequently suppresses his charisma to avoid arousing the suspicions of his captors.

The writing for the slave owners, particular Epps, is clean and effective. His smarts are based on guts and religion, and, as such, he comes off as a self-conceited idiot who refuses to consider any logic created by someone other than himself or his perception of God.

The mood and pacing of the film is unrelenting. Dramatic events and set pieces are woven together seamlessly with very little handholding offered to the audience.

The production and filmmaking techniques utilized in 12 Years A Slave are impeccable, especially the cinematography and music. A large portion of the shots are either claustrophobic close ups or long-distant landscapes. While the long shots mostly serve to set the scene of the South, the tight close-ups go a long way by immersing the viewer in the film. By filling the frame with indistinguishable body parts for a split second before jumping to another similar shot, the audience experiences the same disjointed confusion Northup felt upon discovering his predicament.

The score by Hans Zimmer is remarkable. If you’ve seen the trailer, then you already know the music is not only an essential part of the film’s story—since Northup is a renowned violin player—but also a key feature in the film’s emotional power. The music is brilliant and hits the right notes when needed, but it is the jagged and screeching score that accompanies Solomon’s initial descent into slavery that is most effective.

Comparisons to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained are inevitable, and it’s honestly unfortunate that they will be made. However, if there is one thing worth comparing, it is the violence.

Tarantino’s action is famous for being “colorful” and extremely visceral, and it is for this reason that 12 Years A Slave’s depictions of brutality are so much more effective. In a Tarantino flick, we know the gore is coming, and Tarantino never cuts away from it. In 12 Years A Slave, we know some violence is coming, but we never know exactly when.

If you want to compare McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave to another movie, do it with Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List for three reasons: they address the most serious real-world subjects from the perspective of individuals who never had firsthand experience until they were thrown right into the thick of it; they are career defining masterpieces that are flawlessly made and exemplify every reason film exists; one was nominated for twelve Oscars and won seven while the other will receive double-digit nominations and at the moment, is the top Oscar pick.

First-year Jeffrey Robinowitz is a staff writer. His email is jrobinow@fandm.edu.