Once in a while, a film comes around that just feels important. “Psycho,” “2001: A Space Odyssey” and this year’s “Gravity” are members of the group. However, this year there is another film that could fit the bill. “12 Years a Slave” is not a technologically innovative film, but it is the raw human emotion and unflinching storytelling that makes it important.
It was once said that movies should make you feel uncomfortable, and “12 Years a Slave” painfully achieves that. This is no surprise, considering director Steve McQueen also helmed the NC-17-rated sex addiction film “Shame,” starring Michael Fassbender, who also appears in “12 Years a Slave.” McQueen is masterful at letting the plot take over the film, even if he does so here at the expense of real character development.
Despite this, the film is chock full of fine performances and bolstered with raw, emotional performances. In the film, Chiwetel Eijofor plays Solomon Northup — a free man and accomplished violinist who is taken in as a slave for, as the title says, 12 years. We are painfully connected to him. We are feeling his emotion and his pain. But there is something missing — his role is never fully developed. While we see him emote realistically, there is never a strong backstory that differentiates him from any other person.
In the film, we watch this one man endure incredible cruelty and abuse but never witness the widespread nature of slavery. The filmmakers can’t be blamed for this oversight, seeing as this is Northup’s story, but it would have made for a stronger film.
Nevertheless, this fine film succeeds at what it set out to do: tell the story of protagonist Solomon Northup. Along the way, Northup encounters viciously cruel landowners and other slaves. This impressive ensemble includes actors Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard, among others.
Despite the large cast, there are two clear standouts from the supporting players. Michael Fassbender, who plays perhaps the cruelest slave owner of Northup, Edwin Epps, plays the role with an icy realism that bolsters the film’s brutality.
However, it is Lupita Nyong’o who steals the entire film in a breakout role. She is absolutely heartbreaking as another slave owned by Fassbender’s character. It is her role that we feel the most empathy for. It is her role that makes us want to turn away from the screen. Don’t be surprised to see her pick up a few trophies, including an Oscar, for this performance.
If it is Nyong’o’s performance that makes us want to turn away, then it is Eijofor that makes us want to keep watching. He portrays his character with a strength that may not be readily available in the screenplay, which makes his performance all the more remarkable.
“12 Years a Slave” is going to please a lot of people, whether it be critics, regular moviegoers or those looking for a popcorn flick. It keeps you interested the entire way through, and where it falters it makes up for in performances and craft. If you’re looking for a brutal, historical look at American slavery, look no further. Its brilliance and effectiveness is in its realism, and that’s why this movie, more than others this year, is an important film.