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The Dartmouth
May 28, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Film reminds audience of legacy of slavery and race

Last year, Quentin Tarantino tackled American slavery with the subtlety of a bull in a China shop with his revenge epic, “Django Unchained.” While the film was a critical and commercial success, there was a loud contingent that attacked Tarantino for treating slavery and its implications with such irreverence. The arrival of “12 Years a Slave” should quell any desire for such a film as it is sure to be to slavery as “Schindler’s List” was to the Holocaust: a powerful story that puts a human face on unspeakable evil.

Based on the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, “12 Years a Slave” chronicles Solomon’s hellish life after he is kidnapped into slavery and forced to work for one cruel master after another. Despite his circumstances, Solomon never loses hope that he will one day be reunited with his wife and children, even as that possibility grows dimmer by the day.

The film is absolutely haunting from the first frame to the last and is buoyed by powerful performances all around. Ejiofor may very well walk away with an Oscar next year, but Michael Fassbender, who plays the psychotic slaveowner Edwin Epps, is a near-certain lock for Best Supporting Actor. Epps is a man who makes Leonardo DiCaprio’s character from “Django Unchained” look like an ill-mannered hypochondriac. It is a privilege to watch Fassbender make us fear a pathetic alcoholic, but he does it with such ease it actually becomes scary.

“12 Years a Slave” is the latest film by Steve McQueen, the artist-turned-film director who has already carved a distinct niche for himself after only three films. McQueen’s work is characterized by an unrelenting brutality bound to his almost fanatical devotion to portraying the truth, no matter what it may be. “Hunger” is relentless in its portrayal of what happens to IRA member Bobby Sands during his hunger strike in prison. “Shame,” with its portrayal of a sex addict’s life, is one of the most beautiful train wrecks ever put on screen. “12 Years a Slave” is no different; it is difficult to watch, but necessary to finish.

Part of what makes McQueen’s style so endearing is his masterful use of long takes. Along with Alfonso Cuaron, McQueen has embraced the increasingly discarded tool to take the audience to new emotional heights. In my review of “Gravity” a few weeks ago, I noted the main power of the long take is to force the audience to pay attention. With a subject matter as brutal as slavery, the multiple long takes in the film force you to watch in horror as Solomon is abused, berated and threatened. The worst part of it all? There’s absolutely nothing you can do about it.

The best example of this comes when Epps viciously beats Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), his slave, in a sequence that seems to border on sadomasochism as the action refuses to cut. However, it shouldn’t cut and it doesn’t until the lashes on Patsey’s back have formed a crusty pool of blood.

It is sequences like that in which the true power of “12 Years a Slave” lies. It is a film that serves to remind us about the legacy of slavery and perhaps why race relations in the United States have not progressed past the very notion of race.

It is also interesting to note that while McQueen is a black man, he is also British. In fact, Ejiofor, Fassbender, Nyong’o and Benedict Cumberbatch, who shows up for a bit part as a benevolent plantation owner, are all also British.

This begs the question as to why a film like this came from our friends from across the pond and not from within our own borders. As much as I enjoyed “Django Unchained,” is that really the best we can do in terms of our own cultural heritage? Then again, for a topic as painful as slavery, perhaps it is best to have a third party tackle it to give it THE proper treatment it deserves.

Rating: 9.9/10

“12 Years a Slave” is currently playing at the Nugget.