The funeral. Do not listen to Bill Simmons. (Here’s his link.)
In “12 Years a Slave,” Chiwetel Ejiofor plays someone who’s kidnapped and imprisoned in a nightmare world. He is considered a subhuman and tortured. Multiple critics describe in their reviews his “deep, soulful eyes.” They’re big eyes, and when he’s scared they beam desperation.
He doesn’t want to die, but there’s a madman with a gun in his face, screaming into his ear to whip Patsey until the skin on her whole back is shredded. You believe it, and want badly for this poor guy to survive such raw horror.
Ejiofor played the villain in a modern-classic science fiction flick: “Serenity,” written and directed by pre-“Avengers” Joss Whedon. Ejiofor’s character, The Operative, is a charming, interesting snake, hunting the heroes across space with a samurai sword and an army.
“12 Years a Slave” is a step above great villain. Three steps. Despite all the killing, Solomon Northup does fight back, and he hangs for it. He runs, and the universe sends a message with one of the saddest, most coldly violent things you could imagine seeing. We watch him face hell on earth with huge, sharp, sad, scared eyes.
Bill Simmons is ESPN’s best brand. His fan’s-take writing style was so fun to read he gained a massive following and now runs a website (Grantland.com:
God bless it) where many younger versions of himself cover every interesting topic in all sports and pop culture (movies, TV, music, novels sometimes). It’s made him an authority, with a TV show and a blockbuster podcast.
On that podcast, he said “It’s a slightly controversial opinion, but if I was gonna rank the best performances in that movie, I don’t know if, uh, if, if the. Say his name; I can’t say it.”
Responded Wesley Morris, Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic on Grantland (sagely): “Chiwetel Ejiofor?”
“I don’t think he’s in the Top 3 for me, in that movie.”
Then Simmons started asking if younger versions of Denzel Washington or Don Cheadle would have been better as Solomon Northup. That’s what he walked out of the movie theater wondering.
The answer is no. They don’t have the eyes.
“I didn’t love the performance,” Simmons said. “I thought it was good. I didn’t think it was amazing, you know?”
No. Bullshit. That is no argument, and Ejiofor must be a contender for Best Actor.
There’s a funeral in “12 Years a Slave” for a man who dropped dead in the cotton field from heatstroke. The slaves are all singing and clapping.
Solomon Northup was kidnapped into that world. He doesn’t want to be a slave. He doesn’t want to sing with them. But they keep singing, and he’s looking at that grave, and he fights it and fights it but they keep singing. You see the entire struggle on his face, in his eyes, until he gives in and sings. Accepts he’s a slave. This is his family now.
That scene was amazing. He’d better be a Best Actor contender.