Saturday, January 18, 2014

12 Years A Slave (2013)

There is a moment in the film when a slave dies of exhaustion. His body is buried. The slaves congregate around the grave and start singing a farewell song. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who is kidnapped, sold into slavery and forced to take on the name of Platt and life as a plantation worker, stands with the slaves but does not join in song. As the song goes on, we see him crumble and give in, slowly at first and then with full fervour. For a brief moment, it is as if the transformation is complete. Northup has died to give way to Platt.

12 Years A Slave is a difficult film to watch. McQueen's uncompromising vision demands some serious emotional heavy lifting from its viewers. Even for someone like me, who doesn't flinch at the sight of violence easily, the lashes, brutalities and scarring do take their toll. More than anything, it is the helplessness of Solomon, Eliza and Patsie that linger with you for a long time after. At the end, there were sobs and sniffles echoing throughout the cinema hall, and the sources included grown men and women alike. Without a doubt though, the effort is not only worth it, but almost essential.

It is difficult not to see some parallels between McQueen's 12 Years A Slave and Polanski's The Pianist or for that matter, the fate of Jews in concentration camps and that of African Americans in slavery. Both Northup and Spillman are forced to forgo their lives in light of rapidly changing circumstances. Spillman gives up his music. Northup gives up his identity. Any mention of true identity would mean certain death. The moment when Northup is finally able to breathe a word of it is little different from the moment when Spillman pretends to play the piano in his apartment, reminding him of who he is.

12 Years A Slave is stunningly filmed, effortlessly contrasting the undeniable natural beauty of the South with the grotesque treatment of slaves. In scenes of torture, the camera shifts focus from the torturer to the tortured, from the tyrant master to his cruel wife, capturing the most complete experience of the moment possible.

It also features an excellent ensemble, with particularly noteworthy performances from Michael Fassbender and Paul Dano. However, in the end, the film rests on the broad shoulders of Chiwetel Ejiofor, who delivers a masterful, layered performance as Solomon. Through his silence, he conveys the agony, anguish and determination of his character exceedingly well. Just as Solomon becomes Platt, Ejiofor transforms into Solomon and delivers an arresting, unforgettable performance. Lupita Nyong'o is unbelievable as Patsy. It is difficult to believe that this is her first film. In pivotal moments, she outshines the likes of Fassbender and even Ejiofor and leaves an indelible impact.

Ultimately, 12 Years A Slave is not an easy watch, but it is an important one, shedding light in dark places of American history. Masterfully crafted and acted, it is an exquisite work of art that reminds us what human beings are capable of, at their best and worst.

Rating: 4/5 

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