“12 Years a Slave” Review

Unflinching Horror

A Film Review by Akash Singh



Absolute tears. No film this year has come close to making me just lose it and in the final scenes I bawled, I admit it. 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching examination of the sheer terrors of what was arguably America’s darkest chapter and director Steve McQueen pulls no punches. The experience of watching Solomon Northup’s true journey from the North to the plantations of the South where he spends twelve grueling years of his life is a viscerally disturbing one, littered with harshness and very little respite, if any. Based on the memoir of Northup, 12 Years a Slave is a cruel experience, but anything otherwise would be a massive deception. Slavery as a topic has been explored in cinema before, with Roots being a famous example. But more often than not, slavery has been sensitized, as if to find some sort of silver lining to the entire era. There is in every society a somewhat mitigated desire to actually address these difficult questions about history head on, and more often than not cinema has catered to that desire. But there are eras that just cannot be sensitized, and slavery is definitely amongst them. And as the end credits roll and tears fill your face, there is no denying that this film belongs amongst the Top 5 of 2013, if not the best overall. Expect awards nominations and wins galore.

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as the main character Solomon Northup and his performance is truly a tour de force. The formidable fortitude he shows as a character is a force to be reckoned with and when he finally does break, we see his passion unleash in a moment of triumph. But the moment is all too brief. Michael Fassbender on the other spectrum is terrifying as the slave master Edwin Epps, a monstrous human being that uses the Bible as an excuse for treating his slaves as if they were less than even the measliest of dust. Benedict Cumberbatch makes a brief turn here (he is everywhere, isn’t he?) as a slave owner who is “benevolent”. One of the best things about 12 Years a Slave is how it takes various myths about slavery and destroys them. There are numerable sequences where the slaves are being read the Bible and the dichotomy is so apparent it hurts. Some have defended certain slave owners as being “kind” and “generous” to their slaves, but what is often forgotten is that they still bought into the system. Cumberbatch’s William Ford is a man who is obviously hesitant about the slave system, but is far too comfortable with it to actually change it. It is nice to gift a slave a violin, but when those same hands separated a mother from her children, that generosity is very quickly forgotten. Paul Dano is a disgusting John Tibeats, second only to Epps in his monstrous debilitation. Paul Giamatti’s Theophilus Freeman, an ironic name considering his profession, is chilling as he strips incoming slaves of their identities, his eyes telling as he calmly rips a mother away from her children. Lupita Nyong’o gives arguably the film’s most treasured performance as Patsy, a slave who becomes a viciously abused object of Edwin’s greedy lust and Mary’s envy. She’s tragic and heartbreaking and as the carriage bearing Solomon leaves, her visage is just traumatizing. Sarah Paulson is chilly as Mary, a proud woman embittered by the lust her husband shows for Patsy, a lust that has eaten away her pride. Brad Pitt makes a brief appearance as the abolitionist Samuel Bass and Alfre Woodard makes a far-too-brief sojourn as the Mistress Harriet Shaw, a complicated woman who has taken the rare circumstance of commanding her own household. The cast is impeccable and not a single performance disappoints.

The plot of 12 Years a Slave is relatively straightforward. Northup is a free man in the North, living with his family and occupied as a brilliant violinist. He is offered a job opportunity in Washington, and he takes it up, not knowing his two benefactors were going to sell him into slavery. The film follows his journey through the South from slave master to slave master, revealing different portraits of the existence of slavery. The film, considering the title, takes over twelve years and the ending is sort of spoiled by that alone. But when Solomon reunites with his family, Ejiofor utters one line that is bound to create a plethora of tears in anyone’s eyes. I won’t give much of the film away, but there are two key scenes in the film that I have to mention. The first is Solomon’s hanging scene. It occurs in retaliation for him whipping Tibeats and it is excruciating. The camera hangs for about five minutes, forcing the audience to live every moment of excruciating pain as the noose hurts enough but doesn’t kill him. The second scene is even more excruciating. Mary crushes the idea into Edwin that he’s not manly enough, losing himself in his lust and becoming unholy. Edwin through a seeming struggle forces Solomon to do the same once before his own hands are forced. It’s extremely uncomfortable to watch and Steve McQueen directs it without any mercy. The screenplay by Jonathan Ridley is deft and a sure nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Brilliantly done.

Technically the film is beautifully shot, McQueen’s camera always creating a sense of claustrophobia or a lack of hope, even within a wide expanse of a river. But it is his camerawork when it involves the key players of the narrative that shines the best. McQueen is relentless with his camerawork, creating agony in every shot and appropriately so. This is not a peaceful, quiet film. It is a film exploring one of the most horrifying and cruel periods in world history, not just American, and McQueen is as viscerally uncompromising as he needs to be. The greatness within the shots of the hanging and whipping scenes for example, is that the camera keeps Solomon and Patsy within the center but focuses just enough on the environment around them to make the violence contrast within the beautiful surroundings. The dichotomy is haunting. The art palette is gorgeous, each screen lit with just the brightest of horizons but nearly always dimmed to keep the darkness of the story alive. Once again, the river sequence. Just enough light, just enough darkness. It’s gorgeous and haunting at the same time.

I reiterate, 12 Years a Slave is one of the best films of all time. It may not be flawless depending on your point of view, but the film under Ridley’s script and McQueen’s direction is perhaps the most unflinching look upon slavery in America, and the year is 2013. It’s quite sad that it has taken until now to create a film that tears apart the fabric of America’s darkest past, but alas, that is the case. It would have been remarkably easy for McQueen and the team of 12 Years a Slave to “pigeon out” and create a film that would appeal to moralists and patriots alike but the film thankfully avoids that. It does not merely show the whipping, the camera slowly, painfully tears down Patsy’s back not for show but for an astute realization of just how terrifying the existence of slaves was. It’s horrifying, uncomfortable, and deeply saddening. There is simply no way around it. Not once does the film support the institution itself or offer any sort of apologetic reason as to why the system would be espoused in the first place. Nor should any film.



Title: 12 Years a Slave

MPAA Rating: R

Director: Steve McQueen

Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas

Screenplay: Jonathan Ridley

Based On: 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard

Music: Hans Zimmer

Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt

Editing: Joe Walker

Studios: Regency Enterprises, Film 4, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment

Distributers: Fox Searchlight Pictures (U.S.), Summit Entertainment (International), Film4/Channel 4/eOne UK (U.K.)

Running Time: 134 minutes

Release Date: October 18th, 2013 (U.S.); January 10th, 2014 (U.K.)

Image Courtesy: The Hollywood Reporter


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