Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Best Actor 2013: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor received his first Oscar nomination for portraying Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave is an excellent film about the story of one educated freeman who was forced into slavery.

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.

44 comments:

RatedRStar said...

Its always nice to see an underated British actor hit the big time, he is gonna be big in years to come =D.

Matt Mustin said...

He's amazing. I never once saw him acting throughout the entire film, it's one of the most genuine and honest performances I've seen in some time.

Matt Mustin said...

That said, comparing the reviews it seems like you greatly preferred McConaughey.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

The way his face changes in the "Roll Jordan Roll" scene was heartbreaking.

luke higham said...

Louis: who're you reviewing next.

dinasztie said...

I'm not much of a fan of the film, but I found Ejiofor outstanding here. Maybe not a 5, but definitely a 4.5 at least. His last scene was heartbreaking.

luke higham said...

Louis: what were your thoughts on the hanging scene.

Matt Mustin said...

koook: Yes, Oh my God, that was amazing!
luke: That scene was so brilliantly directed I wanted to give McQueen the Oscar right that second.

Kevin said...

Matt: I thought the whipping scene was the best-directed scene of 2013, right alongside the opening long shot of Gravity.

Matt Mustin said...

Well, I can't argue with either of those choices.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke: Bale will be next.

The hanging scene was masterfully done by McQueen and that is probably the best scene in the film in terms of direction.

luke higham said...

Louis: in your opinion, who gave the best performance in the film.

Louis Morgan said...

Ejiofor and Fassbender are about on the same level.

luke higham said...

Louis: Are you still yet to see Nebraska.

Michael Patison said...

Agreed on the hanging scene. I also love how McQueen just let the actors do their think during the lashing scene.

Louis Morgan said...

Luke: I still need to watch it.

Matt Mustin said...

I read somewhere that the scene where Epps whips Patsey was a single four minute take. If that's true, that's damn impressive because I didn't even notice that.

Michael McCarthy said...

I read that Fassbender passed out after they filmed the scene where Epps rapes Patsey because of how intense it was.

Matt Mustin said...

I read that too. It doesn't surpise me.

Psifonian said...

He was wonderful, and certainly deserving of any accolades that come his way. Still, there's one scene of his that drastically yanks me out of the film. His big blow-up ("I shall not FALL into despair!") just feels so stagey, and it feels a complete clash with the rest of his performance because he really doesn't overplay it at all throughout the rest of the film. It's a great bit of work, but he's not even in my Top 5 anymore, and it's a shame, because he was good.

luke higham said...

Psifonian: what is your top 5.

Michael McCarthy said...

Psifonian; I actually thought the exact same thing about that bit, it felt like a generic audition monologue. But the film and the rest of his performance were so powerful that I was able to brush that off pretty easily.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

@Psifonian: I can see that. That's when Ejiofor's history as a renowned stage actor peeks its head.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

On a completely unrelated note, does anyone watch Law and Order: SVU? And do you hate-watch it like I do to see if can possibly get worse?

JackiBoyz said...

Ive heard bad things about it, what is truly painful about it lol.

Michael Patison said...

Robert: I don't have enough time to hate-watch anything.

Psifonian said...

Luke:

McConaughey, Phoenix, Hanks, Dern, Isaac.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Here's the thing about SVU; I used to be a fan. I loved the original Law and Order and liked Criminal Intent well enough. Then they were canceled. So now I watch it to see if it get worse. It can be funny bad (the Sharon Stone episodes), boring bad (anything Benson-centered), or flat-out offensive bad (the Rhianna episode that turned Chris Brown into a serial killer).

Matt Mustin said...

What rating would you give Benedict Cumberbatch, Louis? I personally liked him a lot despite his limited screen time.

Louis Morgan said...

I would probably give him either a 3 or a 3.5.

dinasztie said...

BTW, what do you think of Lupita Nyong'o? Personally, I loved all the performances in this film (Ejiofor, Fassbender, Paulson and Adepero Oduye all deserved nominations in my opinion), but I was disappointed by Lupita. She had like 10 lines and she did well within those limits, but I don't see what's so complex or even difficult about her performance. The situation the character was in was horrible and I think that's what effects not her performance. IMO, it's a really overrated performance that maybe should have earned her only breakthrough awards. Jennifer Lawrence is an easy pick for me in supporting, very much like Sally Field last year (I guess you probably don't like her, either as you're not a Hustle fan).

Louis Morgan said...

I agree with you about Nyong'o, although Lawrence definitely would not be my choice as American Hustle is the first time I've disliked a performance from her. I thought Nyong'o really only played the role two ways she either had like this childlike distance about her or she was having a complete emotional breakdown. I thought she played those two sides well enough, but I did want more from her.

Matt Mustin said...

I was left almost completely cold by Lupita and the emotion came almost entirely from the situation and, oddly enough, Ejifor's performance.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

.... UNHOLY ONES, I PUNISH THEE!

Psifonian said...

Lupita Nyong'o did well with what she had, but in reality, she was a living prop with two settings: cry and stare. Even in her big scene (the whipping), Ejiofor and Fassbender and even Paulson were better.

Adepero Oduye was better as well and made much more of an impact. Sure, she was more hysterical, but I bought her as someone going through that grief. How else was she supposed to act? In contrast, Nyong'o made so little impact to me.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

... Hype backlash much? Seriously, I have no clue which performance you guys watched. Nyongo'o was freaking perfect. Not every performance has to be based around dialogue. She's so far ahead on my Supporting Actress ballot it's not even funny. NO ONE comes close this year.

Matt Mustin said...

Well since everyone's talking here about Adepero Oduye, what did you think of her Louis?

moviefilm said...

Robert, could you please explain us, what was so perfect about her performance? Beacuse I've seen the film twice yet (the second time was because of my review of her) and I just still don't understand why she's receiving all the awards. I don't even understand how did anybody notice her in the film...

Michael McCarthy said...

I'd be inclined to take Robert's side, but to a lesser degree. I walked in expecting amazing things from her because of what I heard, but I felt he fell slightly short of that. But I felt that was mostly just because Nyong'o's character was not written to be very complex. Having said that, I thought Nyong'o brought a very strong and very real emotional intensity to the role which from where I was standing was little more than a plot device. I also think she's the best of the nominees (with Squibb actually as my second choice).

Louis Morgan said...

Matt: I have admit I was not really impressed by Adepero Oduye, but it has nothing to do with her playing the part as hysterical as that is the way the part had to be played. One thing is she was oddly not teary eyed for all her wailing. Also I never felt she really grasped the language the film used correctly. She sounded like a non-Shakespearean actor doing Shakespeare.

Matt Mustin said...

Louis: I kind of agree, actually.

Psifonian said...

And, really, Robert, I don't know what you saw in Nyong'o. I've only seen the film once, so perhaps a rewatch is necessary, but I really get the vibe that people are rewarding the role rather than the performance here. But Nyong'o, part and parcel, is why "12 Years a Slave" isn't a flawless film. Its script doesn't allow for character development beyond Solomon. Everyone else is an archetype. Some work. Some don't. Nyong'o isn't awful, not by any means, but leaving everyone else in the dust in the category? Not a chance.

koook160 (Robert MacFarlane) said...

Compared to Squibb's snarling and mugging? Or Lawrence's histrionics? Yes, I would qualify her as a winner in a landslide.

joe burns said...

I agree with Matt Mustin's comment: It's an incredibly genuine and honest portrayal which is refreshing to see nowadays. Not the performances these days are bad, but they just don't come from such an honest place.

McConaughey is still going to win this one though. I have yet to see the film, but it's next on my list.