A little over a week ago I was able to attend the star-studded premiere of the film 12 Years a Slave at the Directors Guild of America in Los Angeles.
12 Years a Slave is based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup, who was a free Black man in upstate New York. A husband and father, he was a literate, working man, who also made money as a fiddler. However, his life changed in 1841. After being lured to Washington, D.C. with the promise of several days of work playing with the circus, he was kidnapped into slavery.
Over the next 12 years before finally winning his freedom, he became the property of a series of different plantation owners, the last being a brutal, menacing, religiously, conflicted man played by Michael Fassbender.
The film, to say the least, is extremely hard to watch. One of the most devastating, harrowing movies in film history, director Steve McQueen’s film is one of the best movies of the year, and I believe it will become the definitive American film about slavery.
Being a young filmmaker myself, I’ve always believed that life imitates art. The entertainment business in Hollywood has used film and images over the last 100 years to create a propaganda on American history. Films, such as Gone With the Wind, portrayed Blacks as happy and content servants, some of whom were actually good friends and loved their White masters who supposedly took good care of them. There is no propaganda or spin on history in 12 Years a Slave.
The members of the ensemble cast give first-rate performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor (pictured) is superb as Northup. Brad Pitt had his Legends of the Fall swagger on deck and Michael K. WIlliams, in a limited cameo role, was brilliant. However, the best acting work in 12 Years, came from a young actress in her first-ever film role. Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actress who has never before appeared in a feature film, plays a slave named Patsy, in a way that’s practically groundbreaking. In a film with all these accomplished actors, she gives the most devastating performance of all.
After the film ended, I talked with a number of fellow actor friends including Omari Hardwick, Common and Craig Robinson, who were all blown away by the story-telling and still trying to process what they had just seen. We shared our thoughts on seeing a few White people who were not able to sit through the film, which had brutal beating and rape scenes. Seemingly bothered by the depictions, they got up and walked out of the theater. We all pretty much agreed that 12 Years a Slave was the Schindler’s List of slave films. The absolute best.
I thank Steve McQueen for having the guts to make this film and Fox Searchlight for having the courage to distribute it. With the mega success of The Butler this year, I’m sure more historical African-American themed films will follow. However, 12 Years a Slave stands in a class all by itself.
My prediction is Oscar nods for Steve McQueen for Director. John Ridley for Adapted Screenplay. Chiwetel Ejiofor Best Actor. Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender Best Supporting Actress and Actor respectively.
Watch the trailer for 12 Years below.