Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.

10/10

Hoop Dreams [1994]

Hoop Dreams [1994]

Hoop Dreams [1994]
Directors: Steve James
Genre: Documentary/Drama/Sports
Language: English
Country: USA

People always say to me, “when you get to the NBA, don’t forget about me.” Well, I should’ve said back, “if I don’t make it to the NBA, don’t you forget about me.”
– William Gates

Hoop Dreams is a documentary about two Chicago inner-city African-American kids, William Gates and Arthur Agee, who eat, breathe and sleep basketball, and aspire someday to play in the NBA. The movie follows them through their high school years as they attempt to lead their teams to the championship all while keeping their heads above water academically.

Both students are recruited to the famous St. Joseph’s High School in Westchester, Illinois. These guys make the rough 90-minute commute every day because of the school’s reputation; after all, this is where Isiah Thomas played during his youth. An early scene shows Thomas visiting his alma mater, and it is fun to watch the kids sitting there in awe while listening to their hero. Both teens struggle with their new school at first — it takes some time to adjust to a racially diverse school considering their home neighborhoods (Cabrini-Green and West Garfield Park). When Agee struggles to play up to his potential at the school, he is dropped from the program without so much of a blink of an eye. All of a sudden Agee’s family is left with a large tuition bill that they cannot afford. This doesn’t happen to Gates. He becomes the star of his team and gets financial support from a wealthy old white lady, simply because he has been able to better utilize his talent on the court. These types of discrepancies are all too common, and Hoop Dreams brings attention to this light.

Perhaps what I loved most about this documentary is that it is wildly unpredictable. I didn’t know anything about either kid beforehand, so I had no idea what to expect. It’s easy to see in the beginning stages of the movie who is more likely to succeed, but there are always twists that can hamper anyone’s path to their dreams. Both teenagers have immense basketball talent, yet both fight hardships along their way.

Make no mistake: even though this movie is about basketball, it is so much more than that. This is a film that tackles important issues in American life, problems with racial and economic divisions, class and our educational system, not to mention the pursuit of the American Dream. This is a movie about families, and how important it is to stick together.

It should be noted that Hoop Dreams is a three hour film. There aren’t many movies of this length that have kept my interest throughout, but this is one of them. There is a lot of story to tell here, and it’s amazing that the filmmakers were able to cut down over 250 hours of footage into this picture. The extended length is never a burden, and it allows us to learn more about the families of both children. It is hard not to be interested in Curtis Gates, William’s older brother who was also a basketball stud but let his bad attitude and temperament ruin his once-promising career. It’s hard not to feel for the Agee family, as Arthur’s dad fights a difficult battle with drug addiction.

Hoop Dreams is a movie that I will soon not forget. Don’t let its extended running time and it’s blatant 90’s look scare you — this is a masterpiece of a documentary that still resonates today.

10/10

Hoop Dreams Trailer from Kartemquin Films on Vimeo.