You often hear actors praising acting because it allows them to be “something bigger than themselves”. When it comes to period films and stepping into the shoes of our ancestors, these words make perfect sense. When these ancestors were involved in crimes against humanity, even more so. Those words are then no longer associated with the joy of discovering the depths of humanity, but with the weight of how much harm humans can actually do and the conversation created around it.
In my humble view, 12 years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s film based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free man from New York who is kidnapped and sold to become a slave in Louisiana, is a masterpiece because of how it transports and stuns us without leaving much room for us to criticise it or ask too many questions.
Indeed, inquiring why Michael Fassbender’s character Edwin Epps is as evil as he is, becomes irrelevant once we ask “how can anyone be that horrible, feel such hatred against other human beings?” In this sense, McQueen uses Northup’s story in order for us to not sweat the small questions and look at the big picture. This is helped by shockingly exposing us to details of characters and behaviours. In these details lie McQueen’s talent.
One of these details is Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulson) and her jealous feelings towards the slave Patsey (a revelation: Lupita Nyong’o) that influence her to commit cold-blooded violence against her. Columnist Hadley Freeman points out that “physical punishment seems to have occurred between mistresses and slaves” and it is interesting to see this distinguished by the film. Further elements, such as an African-American woman who married her master, or the way the slaves are presented to their potential owners, are eye opening and help to steer away from clichés.
Of course, apart from the cameos played by Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, Chiwetel Ejiofor is deserving of all the praise he is receiving. His Solomon never stops showing courage and dignity without ever giving in to despair. Unfortunately, in one of the film’s final and painful scenes, his master’s cries push him towards an animalistic out of body act that promises to haunt him forever. Ejiofor’s eyes and lips express most of his sorrow and even his motionless body and contemplative expression are enough to tell a thousand words. His performance shows simplicity and true engagement in his role. As the sweat rolls down his nose, we wonder how such a warm and beautiful geographic region can be the location of such pain.
Tonight are the Golden Globe Awards. I do hope this picture receives what it deserves.