Slavery is indeed a heinous crime against humanity that existed in the United States in the past. I had seen this crime brought to life in numerous films from the "Roots" mini-series in my youth up to "Django Unchained" last year.
"12 Years a Slave" is yet another film that brings back those sordid days of suffering indignities and torture while forced to work in those cotton fields in the American South. Truth to tell, I felt the scenes depicting these horrific events were not really different from what we have seen in the past. The level of violence may have been amped up by available technology, but the painful message remains the same.
The interesting details which were new to me were those that depicted the abduction of free Northern Afro-Americans to be forced into slavery in the South. It was also terrible to see the slave selling scenes featuring a sinister cameo by Paul Giamatti. But these happen within the first hour of the film. The rest of the film already felt squeamishly familiar, but harder to watch because the floggings tended to approach (though thankfully not exceed) "Passion of the Christ" levels.
The acclaim and awards-buzz that preceded the performance of lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is much-deserved. His Solomon Northup maintains his dignity even under the yoke of slavery. He deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his restrained yet effectively emotional performance.
Michael Fassbender (a favorite star of director Steve McQueen) is very effective as evil incarnated as a sadistic slave owner, the cruel Edwin Epps. But, sad to say, I felt he did not bring anything we have not seen before to this type of role.
First-time film actress Lupita Nyong'o had a heart-rending debut as Patsey, the young female slave who was the unfortunate apple of the leering eyes of Master Epps, which makes the blood of jealous Mistress Epps (an ice-cold Sarah Paulsen) boil. She was definitely a top contender for the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. (She won.)
The technical aspect of the film were all first-rate, from the cinematography, to the production design, to the costumes, to the music (by Hans Zimmer). Maybe the Oscar hype (it had nine Oscar nominations) around this film may have given me unrealistic expectations. It was not bad by any measure, but just not as excellent as I was expecting it to be. 7/10
"12 Years a Slave" has just won the Oscar for Best Picture of 2013. I was not too happy with that win. I thought "Gravity" had it in the bag, having won six Oscars including Best Director. "12 Years" had only won for Best Supporting Actress for the luminous Lupita Nyong'o and for Best Adapted Screenplay for John Ridley (who based it from Solomon Northup's memoirs).
There were hints dropped during the Oscar ceremony suggesting it might win. It was the last nominee featured among the Best Picture nominees. Host Ellen Degeneres slyly joked that if it didn't win, then the Academy members were racist.
Well, whatever the reason, "12 Years" has won, and that's that. Again, it is by no means an unworthy film, but I felt that it did not really give us anything new that had not been shown in other films about slavery before. "Gravity," on the other hand, broke cinematic frontiers in terms of its technical excellence.
This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said" last February 27 before the Oscar Awards. The epilogue was written Thursday, March 6.