Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

12 Years a Slave


Steve McQueen
John Ridley (Novel by Solomon Northrup)
134 min.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam, Brad Pitt
MPAA Rating
R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality

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There have been many films dealing with the Civil War and the Antebellum Period, few have tackled the era from a slave’s point of view, giving 12 Years a Slave a level of urgency that increases its impact.

Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living with his wife and children in the New York. He’s tricked into a violin performance that leads to his abduction and sale into slavery in the deep South where no one will believe that he is free. His incredible journey from plantation to plantation where he struggles to keep his northern education in check while surviving against the depravity and disdain of the area towards blacks.

Based on a novel written by Northrup, 12 Year a Slave digs into the indignity and cruel viciousness of slavery prior to the United States Civil War. We’re exposed at regular turns to death, beatings, humiliation and countless other degrading treatment inflicted on Northrup and those around him. Northrup learns that trust carries danger and friendship can lead to betrayal. The only one he can rely on is himself, making it difficult to keep focus on the end goal of one day becoming free again.

Ejiofor’s performance is intense, powerful, a defiant examination of faith, anger, fear and hope as only a man put through intense hardship can understand. He is matched with equal parts ferocity and villainy by Michael Fassbender who portrays the man who held him as a slave for most of the remainder of his time in the South. Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a fractured man who finds solace from his malicious wife (Sarah Paulson) by seeking refuge with a slave woman (Lupita Nyong’o) and as easily turning on those who keeps in greatest confidence.

Finding such a strong, courageous character in a damaged woman, Nyong’o struggles to retain her humanity in light of direct opposition from Mrs. Epps and a master who has grown increasingly prickly towards her as her actions threaten to dissolve the reputation he has achieved in the area. It would be easy to dismiss Nyong’o with such a short bit of screen time, but she makes brilliant work of those limited scenes.

There are plenty of talented thespians doing brilliant work in 12 Years a Slave, they show up and depart like those you might see in a 1970s miniseries. Alfre Woodard delivers a succinct performance as one of the few lucky slaves in the south whose masters have an emotional investment that leads to peaceful coexistence; Benedict Cumberbatch gives depth to a progressive plantation owner whose heart is big, but whose fear of retribution is bigger; Adepero Oduye has a brief appearance as an emotionally distraught slave sold alongside Solomon who cannot bear having lost her children; Paul Dano is aggressively evil as the poster boy for privileged white slave foremen, whose vicious barbarity leads to one of the film’s most savage segments.

Director Steve McQueen has, to date, focused on small character dramas with finite narratives that explore the depths of human frailty, suffering and strength. When he was attached to direct this sprawling historical drama, the big question was whether he could handle a broader story with a more bountiful cast. It’s clear now that he was not only up to the task, but understood how to bring his modest individualist sensibilities to bear on material that in the hands of someone like Steven Spielberg (as evinced in Lincoln) would have turned into a vast, complex epic of big scenes and flashy direction. McQueen remains intimate and compasionate towards his subjects and successfully brings the audience to a time not far past where prejudice, ignorance and privilege led to atrocities that should never have been inflicted on fellow human beings.

12 Year a Slave is a complex film that asks questions about our history and presents the truth with a light filter, forcing the audience to come to terms with a violent and repressive period in United States history. There’s hope amidst the despair, but it takes faith and perseverance to bring it forward. There are lessons here not just for our historical examinations, but for future dealings with those who are different than we are. It may not have the stark imagery of a Schindler’s List, but the toll on human life and the intensity of human suffering are similar and while that may be tough for some to watch, it’s imperative that they do.
Review Written
February 5, 2014

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