‘12 Years a Slave’ as real as it gets

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  • Graphic by: Matt Veal

Peyton Callanan

Great dramatic films tend to walk a thin line between genuinely moving audiences and pandering to their emotions by putting characters through a gratuitous amount of trauma. Dramatic scripts, accompanied by a sweeping musical score and scenery-chewing actors, often seem as if they are shamelessly trying to trick their audience into feel a certain way.

Director Steve McQueen’s harrowing film “12 Years a Slave,” based on a true story about a free black man who was sold into slavery, could have easily fallen into that category, but instead McQueen (“Shame”) delivers a film that is both beautiful and poignant as well as explicit and devastating.

No movie will ever be able to give a completely realistic depiction of the horrors of slavery, but McQueen did his best not to shy away from the gritty truth of the source material. Though some viewers may balk at the violence, McQueen showcased it in a manner that was incredibly frank rather than unnecessary.

The film is anchored by its lead Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men,” “Salt”), as Solomon Northup, an intelligent man who is determined to survive and find his way back to his family despite those who try to break him. Ejiofor’s performance is both commanding and inspiring without ever feeling excessive, and he holds his own against a cast filled to the brim with some of the best character actors in the business.

Paul Giamatii (“Sideways”), Paul Dano (“There Will Be Blood”) and Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”), all make appearances as seemingly deplorable people, each elevating every scene they are in no matter how short. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is equally as engaging, as a fellow slave who is the object of her owner’s affections.

However, it is Michael Fassbender (“X-men: First Class”), as the sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps, who gives the most unsettling and impressive performance. It is hard to look away from Fassbender, who skillfully created an incredibly warped yet captivating character.

Nevertheless, McQueen never depicts any of the characters as truly good or evil; they are all just people trying to survive, which allows viewers the opportunity to make judgments about the characters and their motives without feeling as if they are being told how to feel about a certain character.

While the focus of the movie may lie in the performances, the cinematography is appropriately restrained, yet magnificent. The stark contrast between the beauty of the plantations and reality of what happened there is wonderfully played by McQueen.

“12 Years a Slave” never shies away embracing the dramatic nature of the story but does so in the most honest way possible, leaving audiences with a film that will stay with them long after the credits have rolled.