Lene Trunjer Petersen
On March 2, the annual Academy Awards will bring the stars together to celebrate yet another ‘best-of-the-best’ film-year for 2013. The prestigious Best Picture Oscar nominations will be announced on January 16 and so far, the film 12 Years a Slave is predicted to be a guaranteed nominee, if not winner. The film has already won People’s Choice Award at the Tiff and is one of the best films I’ve seen in a long time.
12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography written by Solomon Northup in 1853. Northup was a free African-American New Yorker, who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold as a slave in New Orleans. At that time, kidnapping of African people was commonplace, and Northup was one of the few people who were freed. The film tells the unsettling story of Northup’s 12 years, where he was a slave at several different plantations while somehow maintaining hope of seeing his family again.
The British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays Northup with an intensity that makes 12 Years a Slave both authentic and moving. Northup is the kind of man who will not give in to despair and give up on his old life. He has a certain dignity about him that even the plantation owners cannot see past, which eventually becomes his greatest weakness. Northup receives a violin from his first plantation owner, which becomes a symbol for his struggle to maintain his identity. But when Northup is forced to whip the slave-girl Eliza, portrayed by Adepero Oduye, the fragile self-image cracks – and so does the violin. Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of the drunken slave-owner Edwin Epps is both powerful and disturbing.
Just as the acting is remarkable, the cinematography is breathtaking. The beautiful scenes of nature starkly contrast the brutality of slavery, the loss of human rights and the struggle to maintain your identity in the face of violent injustice. It is the pure genius of British director Steve McQueen to address the conflict through the visual elements. This film isn’t meant to coddle you. Its brutality even made me cry (which rarely happens). The film is a historical drama that forces the audience to reflect upon not only a man’s struggle for freedom and a sense of self, but on the consequences racism and the complexity of friendship.