Posted by: ckckred | November 4, 2013

12 Years A Slave


Director Steve McQueen’s previous films, Hunger and Shame, focused on the lives of troubled men in bleak worlds, an IRA prisoner and sex addict respectively.  Now the British director has taken on a similar and more open subject, but one that is no less weighty, on America’s darkest and gravest injustice: slavery.   12 Years A Slave, based on a book of the same namesake written by Solomon Northup who tells how he, a free man, is taken into slavery, has won much praise, earning critical raves and audience cheers at the Toronto Film Festival and is currently is the frontrunner for Best Picture.

Yet despite its acclaim, an initial fear of mine was the film’s main topic.  Films about race have always played a major role for Oscars, but the Academy often neglect pictures that concern hard pressing matters (like Do The Right Thing) in favor of movies that are soapy, dull, and white-centered (such as The Help, The Blind Side, and Driving Miss Daisy).  But any idea that McQueen is dipping into sentimentality is diminished within the first few minutes of 12 Years A Slave.  The picture attempts to realistically portray the violence and sheer ugliness of slavery, and even with a bigger budget and profile, McQueen never shies away from taboo topics such as torture and rape.  The director’s fearlessness helps make 12 Years A Slave not only the most realistic portrayal of slavery, but also one of the best films of 2013.

Solomon, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, lives in New York with his family working as a violinist.  He lives a healthy and happy life: his family loves him, his coworkers admire him, and his friends respect him.  But after playing in Washington, Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

The cruelty Solomon endures is truly ruthless.  Once kidnapped, he is renamed Platt and endures severe whippings and beatings.  He first belongs to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind plantation owner who treats him compassionately but after a quarrel with overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano, echoing his role as the crazed preacher in There Will Be Blood) is sent to the ownership of Edwin Epps (McQueen regular Michael Fassbender), who is known for his harsh management of slaves.  From there on, Solomon attempts to survive the brutal hell he lives in while trying to comfort Patsey (Lupita Nyon’o), a fellow slave repeatedly sexually abused by Edwin.

McQueen’s approach, a slow-burning icy analytical examination towards his characters, might be somewhat off-putting for audience, but his direction is perfect for his material.  He takes his viewers on his journey through his film, not making them only witness the pain of his creations but recognize it.  Armed with a larger production, McQueen manages to recreate the setting of 1800s America using detailed sets and extraordinary camerawork to furnish his replication.  He never attempts to create false schmaltziness or manipulation and does not overstate the themes of his screenplay.  He prefers to let his actions play out, preferring long, slow takes to let people reel in the atrocities they are watching. When a woman is forced to abandon her children after being sold into slavery, McQueen lets his cinematographer linger on the same shot for a few minutes in order to capture the chaos and madness behind the scene.

And with such lofty material comes a strong cast to play it.  Ejiofor delivers such a stirring performance as Solomon, never overplaying the character’s emotions.  Fassbender also does an excellent job as the film’s antagonist, which hopefully will win the actor an Oscar win.  Arguably the best actor today, Fassbender adds the ferocity and brutality of Edwin that’s as tense as Daniel Plainview.  Those two are sure to receive accolades for their performances this awards season and it will undoubtedly be deserved.

The year’s most courageous and daring film, 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching look behind slavery and cements Steve McQueen as one of the best filmmakers today.



  1. Excellent review; looking forward to seeing this when it comes out in the UK. Great point about the Academy favouring a certain type of film about race, too – “soapy, dull, and white-centered” is spot on.

    • Thanks! Definitely check it out. And yeah, the Academy seems to love self-congragulatory movies on race.

  2. Can’t wait for this one, it’s been my most anticipated of the year. Loved Hunger and Shame so I have high hopes for this! Great review mate.

    • Thanks! I think you’ll like it, it’s an amazing film.

  3. Fassbender played his role so well in this film. The final act with him had me frozen to the seat! I hope he wins the oscar

    • Thanks for the comment. Fassbender was amazing for sure, I’m hoping he wins as well.

  4. Great review, man. I love McQueen’s previous films and really can’t wait to see this.

    • Thanks! If you like McQueen’s previous work, you’ll really enjoy this. I’ve only seen Hunger before, but 12 Years A Slave shares a similar tone and atmosphere.

  5. Really looking forward to this, even more so after reading your glowing review!

    • Thanks! It’s a great film for sure and I couldn’t find really anything wrong with it.

  6. Great review, man. I’m hoping to finally see this sometime this week!

    • Thanks! Hope you enjoy it.

  7. Great review! I so agree w/ you here: “…He never attempts to create false schmaltziness or manipulation and does not overstate the themes of his screenplay.” That’s a trap a lot of filmmakers fall into but I’m glad he didn’t do so here. Ejiofor was incredible here and so was Lupita Nyong’o in her debut.

    • Thanks! Yeah, I was glad McQueen didn’t do that; he just wanted an honest portrayal of slavery.

  8. Class Review. I can definitely seeing this attracting all of the oscars this year, sounds great..

    • Thanks! Yeah, this will probably sweep the Oscars. Great movie.

  9. Great review! This is one I have been chomping at the bit to see. I can’t wait.

    • Thanks! It’s hard to watch at times, but it’s a really stunning picture.

  10. I did have a few criticisms of certain parts, but I thought it was a good movie. Nice review.

  11. Solid review Ck, it’s a rough one but a rewarding one. Not many offerings this year have we had to work so hard to get to the end. And what a conclusion it was. I was in tears, personally.

    • Thanks! It was hard too watch at times, particularly during Fassbender’s scenes, but it was a great movie. I was choking up a bit at the end as well.

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