YEP - 12 Years a Slave is an undeniably brutal, gut-wrenching film. Mostly due to the inherent brutality of the subject matter; but to shortchange the deeply heartfelt performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor would be unwise. Especially come award season.
Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped from the North in 1841 and taken in bondage to the South, 12 Years a Slave wears its heart on its sleeve and pulls no punches in its portrayal of the inhumane horrors of slavery. The unthinkable cruelty of separating parent from child. The degrading treatment of man as livestock (“There is no sin when it comes to how a man handles his property!”).
If only writer John Ridley’s adaptation screenplay of the Northup book had been up to the task.
For instance, in a film that bears the name of the longevity of the captivity, the narrative offers almost no indications of time passing. Sure, Northup bounces from plantation to plantation and his hair grays a bit, but the chronology of the story is more a patchwork of one sadistic scenario after another rather than a cohesive emotional evolution of a free man’s gradual nightmare descent into a chained man’s personae.
Even more an obstacle for me than the script, however, was the casting. A home run in selecting Ejiofor, although he is an Englishman in an otherwise uniquely American story. I’ve shared with you before my frustration with American stories – especially ones revolving around this time period – being filmed with predominantly foreign actors. Just bugs me.
Most of the other casting choices, Brit & Yankee, were off and downright distracting.
I knew British director Steve McQueen’s film was in trouble early on when Paul Giamatti showed up at the port as a cane wielding, insensitive slave trader. Sorry, Paul, but there is a price to be paid for being a ubiquitous television commercial voiceover pitchman. Certain roles just aint in your wheelhouse anymore.
But that casting choice was nothing compared to the scowl on my face when Paul Dano emerged as Northup’s first plantation whip cracker. I’m totally prepared to admit I simply have a personal dislike of this actor’s chops, a dislike that began when he almost single-handedly brought down Paul Thomas Anderson’s brilliant There Will Be Blood; but then took new roots this past summer in the bone head thriller Prisoners. This guy chews up more scenery on-screen than William Hurt on crystal meth.
The most substantial misfire, however, was in casting X-Men’s Michael Fassbender as the central villainous plantation owner. He is definitely a good actor. He is not good here. In an attempt to bury his British accent he landed somewhere in limbo, but definitely not the South. It’s almost as if he’s in a different film - Django Un-Shamed.
Just when I thought we were out of the woods in the casting distraction department, mega star Brad Pitt (one of the film’s exec producers) appeared near the film’s conclusion as a Christ-like conscientious objecting carpenter – just in time to deliver a contrived “men are all created equal” lecture. While Pitt has come a long way as an actor, he is not believable in this time period, the words tumble out of his mouth like gravel.
Okay, by now you are probably assuming I did not like 12 Years a Slave - I did. It’s an admirable film about a heroic historic figure who went on to be instrumental in the Abolitionist movement leading up to the Civil War and President Lincoln’s eventual Emancipation Proclamation.
Ejiofor has been a consistently charismatic and engaging actor for over a decade now, since Dirty Pretty Things. This may be his finest performance yet, one that is sure to earn him an Oscar nomination, if not a standing ovation victory. Will it be deserved? I don’t see why not. He put his heart and soul into the work and it showed.