Chiwetel Ejiofor received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup who is an educated man living in New York with his family at the beginning of the film, he makes his living through his skills as a violinist which leads him into contact with two strange man who claim to work for a circus. There is not technically anything special about Solomon in this setting as he is just a pretty average guy who loves his family and rather seems to enjoy his life. Ejiofor does well in just making Solomon a pretty average family man without any unnecessary pretense. Solomon should just be a normal man and Ejiofor portrays him as such, he also does not put on his happiness too much to make it overblown, rather he establishes the right type of contentment one would expect from a man with his life.
His good life is put on a definite hold when the meeting with two mysterious men takes an odd turn and in the morning he finds himself in chains. From this point on Ejiofor work has a similar trajectory to Adrien Brody's performance in the Pianist or the second of Haing S. Ngor performance in The Killing Fields. His performance is a bit different as Solomon's time as a slave did allow him to speak where Dith Pran and Wladyslaw Szpilman could not speak a word at times lest it cost them their lives. What is similar though is the portrayal of the physical and psychological torture that he must go through his time as a slave, which all starts when his new hosts whip him until he will go by the name they have given him which is Platt, to hide his true identity.
Ejiofor is extremely effective in bringing the emotions to life as Solomon has undergo such hardships. In his earliest scenes his hardships are pretty much very direct pain both because of the gashes to his back, but as well in his realization that he won't be able to see his family ever again. Ejiofor makes it very easy to feel for Solomon's plight and he does not hold back on the emotional intensity of the moment of these early scenes. Solomon is going through hell and Ejiofor reflects this with his performance. Solomon has been beaten down and we see this through Ejiofor's eyes that shows a man who has been beaten down and absolutely is in fear of someone taking his life. That is not all there is to Ejiofor's portrayal of Solomon though.
Just like Brody in The Pianist and Ngor in The Killing Fields, the most important underlying factor to Ejiofor's portrayal of Solomon is the strong resilience in the man. Solomon of course suffers one hardship after another, but never does Ejiofor show it to be outright despair. Ejiofor shows the will in the man to do more than drown in his sorrows as Solomon never does give on the chance of once again seeing his family again, even if it seems very unlikely considering his current circumstances. Ejiofor brings the power of the man's spirit fervently to life. It is always evident in some way whether it be in a quiet moment where the hope always seems to be in him, or a somewhat louder moment where Ejiofor gives a great passion to Solomon's refusal to give up.
Ejiofor gives a very interesting performance in regards to the way he shows Solomon's particular place on the plantation. For better and for worse Solomon does stand out and Ejiofor is effective in creating this distance that Solomon sets himself from the other slaves, but as well makes him to be considered exceptional by the slavers which is both a good and a bad thing for him. Ejiofor intelligently plays these scenes because he does not show Solomon to be some sort of show off, but rather he properly shows that really Solomon can't fit in with the rest for two reasons. One reason being his background which Ejiofor makes something very innate in his performance and secondly because Ejiofor always reinforces the idea that Solomon won't become any other slave as they would be him giving up.
This is of course mostly a reactionary performance by Ejiofor but he brings such power in these reactions that he never is overshadowed by the direction by Steve McQueen or the more flamboyant performances around him. Ejiofor stands his ground by making the emotional impact of every scene all the greater because of his entirely genuine performance. There are many harrowing and frankly disturbing scenes throughout 12 Years a Slave such as when Solomon witnesses the brutal hanging of two runaway slaves. These are not just merely images to be horrified by because of Ejiofor's work at the center of it all. He does not let a single scene go by without making his own mark through his honest depiction of Solomon's reactions to these cruelties that he must witness.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a great performance here and carries this film on his shoulders from beginning to end. Solomon Northup is actually not an excessively complex character, but in Ejiofor's hands he never seems simple either. Ejiofor realizes the difficulty of Solomon's journey without ever devolving into a repetitive performance. Ejiofor only ever bring truth to his performance and finds that within a man such as Solomon. When Solomon apologizes to the family for his appearance, it does not seem strange in the least and is incredibly heartfelt because Ejiofor has made this the nature of Solomon as a man. Ejiofor performance absolutely works in perfect tandem with film by only ever giving an earnest and very sympathetic depiction of the trial of Solomon Northup, making his story a powerful and poignant depiction of survival.