Amongst the thundering noise of Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game (2013) playing in the neighboring theater I was able to enjoy a beautiful picture. A film that I still cannot completely grasp, portraying a past history that one can only look back at wonder why.
Steve McQueen has released his third film, a film that puts history into full view through every aspect of film as we know it. 12 Years A Slave (2013) left me speechless upon walking out of the theater. A few days before viewing this I watched Denis Villeneuve’s latest film Prisoners (2013); I believed without a doubt this would be taking home an Oscar for best Cinematography. Roger Deakins did an outstanding job with his camera work; the shots could have told you the entire story without a single line of dialogue. Beautiful is not usually a term to be used when considering a film about the kidnapping and imprisonment of young girls, but Deakins along with Villeneuve told a dramatic story in such a beautiful way. Though Prisoners was such a beautiful portrayal of a families struggles and the matters a father will go for to protect his family; I believe that 12 Years A Slave deserves an Oscar for best cinematography in 2013.
12 Years A Slave is a movie about an African American man whom has lived a free life. When he decides to take a job offer from two mysterious characters to play the fiddle in Washington he quickly loses his freedom. Solomon played by Chiwetel Ejiofor is moved from slave plantation to slave plantation until he is placed on the plantation he’s prospected to one day die at. This plantation is run by Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, he is a harsh slave owner and cotton farmer. Solomon goes through man struggles on Mr. Epps plantation until one day due to Bass (Brad Pitt) mails a letter requesting an officer come to present Solomon his freedom. After twelve years Solomon is able to return home to his grown kids and wife.
The fascinating and true story of one man’s struggles through slavery is seen beautifully simply through the script alone, however the acting and cinematography absolutely make this movie what it truly is. Sean Bobbitt the director of photography for this film not only tells the story but completely grasps the viewer’s feelings through his camera work. From the opening scene of the movie I felt as if I was there with Solomon, I seemed to have a connection with him because I was able to see what he was feeling simply through camera shots.
Two specific scenes that really catch the viewer’s attention and make them feel for the character and the entire situation of slavery alone are seen first in the beginning and second right before the ending. The first scene that really impacts viewers is, Solomon hanging from a tree. The plantation owner was not home and his assistant Tibeats (Paul Dano, who played a lead role in Prisoners) decided to hang Solomon until another assistant ordered him to let him down. In this scene no one takes the noose off of Solomon’s neck and he is left hanging with only his toes keeping him from strangling. This scene continues for several minutes and though nothing happens to Solomon so much is seen in the background. What happens in the background is really the main point of this scene to me; it shows us the reality of what was like to be a slave. As Solomon hangs there gasping for air, nearly dying, other slaves continue on with their day. This shows the fear these African Americans had as slaves; they couldn’t even help each other for they were afraid worse would come of them in this game of survival. This entire scene keeps Solomon in full focus, while the others are moving about out of focus. This to me is McQueen’s way of showing how people ignored the abuse of others not only through actions but camera work. He is not stating this in a bad way but what the others must do to fight for their own survival. This scene to me is one of the most powerful scenes of the entire film; it truly shows what it was like to be a slave and the struggles each and every one of them went through. As much as they wanted to protect each other they had to watch their own heads above others to try and escape this madness that was forced upon them.
The second scene that really touches the audience was one of the last scenes in the movie and maybe the most powerful of the entire film. Solomon has befriended this young girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) whom has been through hell and back on this plantation even though she is the best worker. In this scene she has snuck off the plantation to the neighboring farm and received a bar of soap. When she gets back she is attacked by Epps for leaving the plantation. She pleads to him that she only left to retrieve soap for she is the hardest worker and deserves to be clean. Epps does not agree with this plea and demands she strip down to her bare skin and be tied to a post. Once she is tied Epps forces Solomon to whip her, Patsey replies, “I’d rather you Solomon.” Solomon takes the whip in his hands and begins whipping her; this however is not strong enough for Epps and says if he does not whip her until flesh and blood fly from her body he will kill every “nigger” in his sight. Solomon does as he is told but only for a few lashes. When he stops Epps knocks him back and whips Patsey until she can no longer breathe. Solomon unties her and everyone takes her in to aid to her wounds. This scene really impacts the audience; it again shows how each as much as they may care of one another must do whatever in their power to survive for themselves. In this scene you are emotionally attached to both characters you do not want Solomon to hurt Patsey however you do not want to see Solomon punished for not obeying Epps.
McQueen and Bobbitt really capture the viewer’s attention and feelings in these two scenes. Each scene is one long take adding to the depth of meaning they carry. I believe each of these scenes were shot in only one take to keep the viewer’s attention on the meaning behind each scene which is a great way to really tell this story. This film is not one to be seen as a beautiful story but yet a realistic portrayal of true events through great camera work to show an audience the traumatic and disturbing struggles that human beings were forced into.
If you want a story that will leave you feeling good inside this is not the correct choice of cinema. However if you want to see a film of real events that will impact you and really give you a true meaning life and what people have been through this is the right choice. 12 Years A Slave I must say is one the best films I have ever seen. I still cannot grasp the impact it has put on me. It leaves the viewer walking out of the theater with all of these feelings that they cannot explain. There was a silent exit from the theater without one word said from anyone in the audience. I myself could not speak until I had gone a few minutes down the road from the theater; my first word was “wow,” I simply could not digest what I had just seen. It’s a film one must see in each of their lifetimes and may leave them a changed person upon viewing.