Ask a stupid question….the answer obviously is no.

From his first major break-out as a leading man in Dirty, Pretty Things, in which he plays an illegal immigrant, to his earlier appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, Ejiofor has worked fluidily across film and stage for most of his career; praised in many quarters as one of the greatest actors of his generation, Ejiofor undoubtedly oozes star power and charisma, however, having watched 12 Years a Slave, the film for which he has received his first Oscar nomination, I was a little surprised by the performance. The raw power of the narrative and McQueen’s masterful use of cinematic and dramatic language give 12 Years… its compelling majesty. But it’s not Ejiofor whose performance is electrifying in this film. It is Lupita Nyong’o in her role as Patsy, a wounded soul, who embodies all the sufferings and stranded hopes of the Africans trapped in the existential nightmare of slavery. Nyong’o well deserves her academy award nomination for best supporting actress and her recent wins at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.

Patsy is not only a victim, she’s also a cipher, for all the pain and misery, which the other characters are careful not to allow themselves to feel; similar to the character of Margaret Garner in the Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, she feels too much, and for that reason suffers. The genius of Nyong’o’s portrayal is how her face, and body channel these emotions; there is no histrionics here; Nyong’o shows both Patsy’s real erotic power, but also her innocence – a fatal combination in her historical circumstances. Nyongo’s has said she had to transcend the sympathy she felt for the character to inhabit her, and she succeeds; the sympathy and sentimentality about Patsey’s pain is squarely inside the audience’s view of a person just trying to get by in horrific circumstances, but radiating pain.

By contrast, Ejiofor’s character, Northup is cool; there are rarely extremes of emotion. Indeed he is the archetypical man, containing his feelings, and bearing his pain, mostly without tears. So that, Solomon Northup himself often, surprisingly, doesn’t move us, as much as the proxy for all our fears, Patsy. This is not Ejiofor’s doing, McQueen’s central characters, and Northup is not so different, have a cool aura about them; a certain resignation even in the face of emotional extremes, which only accentuate the sufferings, [of the female characters.] It leaves Ejiofor with a character that has to be played with a degree of coolness, and restraint from caterwauling. Like the unseen natural forces of compression and tension which hold a dome in place, Northup’s relative coolness in the face of the brutality around him shows the whole, disgusting spectacle of the slave system into sharp relief.

The greatness of Ejiofor’s performance is not in extremes of emotion, but precisely in its restraint. He should get the award for best actor for which he’s been deservedly nominated, because he does his job, as in the words of Solomon Northup ‘he survives, and keeps himself hardy, until freedom is opportune’.

That he appears in another major film very soon should be a boon for his fans; similar to his role as Solomon Northup, Ejofor plays a man caught up in a great historical moment, in Half of a Yellow Sun, Biyi Bandele’s adaptation of Chimamanda Adichie’s novel; here his performance is light, playful at times, but I think we’re still waiting for the role that will show the full range of Ejiofor’s emotional power as an actor.

 

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