Published on January 13th, 2014 | by Allan Brown6
12 Years A Slave Review
Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2014)
Duration: 134 mins
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Adepero Oduye, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Dwight Henry
Plot: A random encounter leads Solomon Northup from living freely in New York to being kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 Louisiana.
British film director Steve McQueen masterfully delivers on what is perhaps one of the most powerful and significantly important films on the institution of slavery in the United States.
12 Years a Slave is based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York with his family. Solomon was not only born a free African American, but was well educated, a talented musician and a well respected member of his community.
In 1841 Solomon was seduced by promises of lucrative work as a travelling musician by two con-artists. After being lured to Washington, Solomon was subsequently drugged, shackled, beaten and stripped of his identity before being shipped to Louisiana to be sold into slavery.
While slavery was a fact of American life in 1841 and it was indeed legal to own slaves in various states, Solomon Northup’s life in Saratoga, New York, was a world away from what he was to endure over the following 12 years of his life.
As with Hunger and Shame, director Steve McQueen continues his candid study of the depths human depravity, whilst in turn emphasizing the enduring strength of the human spirit.
McQueen carefully crafts his characters, remaining vigilant in avoiding the pitfalls of creating one dimensional caricature’s that are all too common in such narratives.
Indeed, 12 Years a Slave is an objective examination of humanity itself, the harrowing and the triumphant, the beautiful and the ugly, and not an inch is spared, nor stone unturned as McQueen takes us on one of the most heartbreakingly raw and profound personal study’s of slavery, ever to be committed to celluloid. McQueen carefully crafts his characters, remaining vigilant in avoiding the pitfalls of creating one dimensional caricature’s, that are all too common in such narratives.
Instead, McQueen ponders the psychological effects the institution of slavery has on each character and how it damages all who are involved, from the slave to the slaver. This drives us, the audience, to recognise and understand each characters motives and subsequent actions in this shameful period in history.
Central to 12 Years a Slave is the captivating and truly genuine performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. His stand out performance is one bathed in emotion as he effortlessly carries each scene with an unmatched grace, anchoring the central role with an honesty and depth rarely seen. As the camera lingers on him for prolonged periods, he without speaking a word, forces us to see and feel the pain and torture in his eyes, leaving us bound to him throughout his ordeal.
Central to 12 Years a Slave is the captivating and truly genuine performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup.
Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giammati , Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson and Benedict Cumberbatch make up the truly outstanding cast, and although most are in smaller roles, they too shine, elevating the film in providing a holistic and well balanced view of slavery from all angles.
However, it is Michael Fassbender’s performance as the vicious, sadistic, self righteous and hypocritical plantation owner Edwin Epps, that will linger in your mind the longest. Fassbender fully embodies the character of Epps. He is barbaric and truly merciless, but again, McQueen is careful in his approach to the character, showing no man can come away from treating another human being in such a manner, without chipping away at their own psyche. This is a theme that McQueen returns too several times throughout the film, forcing the question, what does it means to own another human being as property, and at what cost would this have on a persons own perception of morality and what is right and wrong in life. Some slave owners such as Benedict Cumberbatch’s character Ford, looks after his slaves, treats them well, but in the end, he to is still a slave owner. Is he a good man, a man who is simply caught up in these troubled times, or is he in essence no better than Epps, a man who whips, beats, rapes and tortures his labour?
Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey, a slave who Solomon encounters on Epps’ plantation. She is a gentle, quiet and a hard working soul who endures her ‘masters’ lusty visits, his vengeful insecurities and his vicious beatings, personifying the confused relationships many slave women were forced to endure at their masters pleasing. Lupita’s performance and her character arc as Patsey is undoubtedly the hardest to watch. Her story alone shocks to the core, symbolising the brutality and dehumanisation slavery was, and this evokes the strongest emotional performance in the whole film.
The cinematography frames the stunningly beautiful backdrops of Tennessee that sadly plays in stark contrast to many difficult and unsettling scenes throughout, these are reflected by Hans Zimmer’s harrowing yet restrained score.
12 Years a Slave is as beautiful as it is agonising. The subject and themes explored that have been taboo for to long, are finally given a voice in what is undoubtedly one of the most important visual educations on the subject of slavery, and one everyone should experience.
Summary: 12 Years a Slave is raw and unsettling in its honesty and as a result it is perhaps one of the most important films in recent memory, one that will undoubted have a profound and lasting effect on all who encounter it, long after the credits role.