Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in America in the 1700s, is kidnapped and sold into slavery where he remains for 12 years. During his time he is tormented and tortured by slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) who also has an unhealthy obsession with Solomon’s fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Director Steve Mcqueen’s previous two features, Hunger and Shame, were intricate character examinations, delving into the human condition but from a very particular viewpoint.

However, with 12 Years a Slave McQueen tackles a much broader subject, that of slavery, and looks at it from a more expansive viewpoint. It’s still a character examination, and a deeply personal one at that, but this time around we’re shown a wider world and some of its more horrendous aspects.

And much of it truly is horrendous. McQueen takes an unflinching look at Northop’s story and has no qualms in presenting us with a piece of cinema that is genuinely uncomfortable and in many ways repulsive. On more than one occasion we’re shown the atrocities that Northop and his fellow slaves had to endure and we’re not spared any of the details.

McQueen has become known for his long takes and he uses them here to devastating effect. One scene in which we see Northup being hung whilst life blithely goes on around him lingers for what seems like an eternity. Similarly, when we see Patsey being sadistically whipped by Epps, every inch of your being screams for it to stop, but McQueen forces us to watch every last crippling lash. This does make for an incredibly difficult watch but is all the more powerful for it.

The performances are also hugely responsible in delivering the film’s message. Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreakingly genuine as Solomon as he wrestles with coming to terms with the fact he’s now a slave and may never see his family again. Another long take showing Solomon’s conflict in joining in singing ‘Roll Jordan, Roll’ with the other slaves is simply masterful. Michael Fassbender also gives yet another fine performance in his third collaboration with McQueen as the hateful slave owner Epps. In a similar way to Northup, Epps is conflicted, particularly when it comes to his feeling for Patsey and Fassbender is fantastic at showing this underlying vulnerability. Lupita Nyong’o, in her first film role, is a revelation as Patsey and seeing her subject to such abhorrent abuse is just crushing.

There are faults with the film, though, and blame must fall at the feet of McQueen and writer John Ridley. Solomon is kidnapped and sold into slavery very early on in the film which doesn’t really allow us to get a sense of his family life. His wife and children are afforded very little screentime and so we don’t really get much of a sense of Solomon as a family man and more importantly a free man. Also, there’s very little to indicate the passage of time throughout the film. Solomon was a slave for 12 years, but in the film it could just as easily have been 12 days. This doesn’t really help us get a sense of how long he was in slavery for and consequently lessens the impact when he finally regains his freedom.

It’s difficult to say 12 Years a Slave is a film one can enjoy. There’s plenty to admire and respect but it’s hard to glean much enjoyment from it. However, it’s an undeniably powerful piece of cinema and further proof that Steve McQueen is one of the most evocative directors working today.

Pros

  • Outstanding performances from Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o
  • Beautifully shot
  • Immensely powerful and heartwrenching

Cons

  • Not enough time spent with Solomon and his family in the outset
  • Little to indicate the passage of time, lessening the impact of just how long Solomon was away.

4 pigeons

4/5 pigeons

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30 thoughts on “Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

  1. CMrok93 says:

    Good review. It’s definitely one of those “one-and-done” movies. You’ve seen it once, you’ve had enough emotional heartbreak for one day, and you may never give it a glance again. That’s how I felt, but I may just check it out once more before the Oscars.

  2. keith7198 says:

    4/5 for me as well. Glad you were able to see it. It really is a solid film but as you mention it has a few flaws. I still have big problems with Pitt’s character and the sense of time thing is a very valid criticism. But I still think think is a powerful movie that has staying power.

  3. jjames36 says:

    Good review. I agree on most points, especially the failure to mark passage of time.

    But I think that a minor flaw, and this a terrific film.

  4. Great, fair review. Very curious about this one.

  5. chris2508 says:

    Great review. I agree with you here don’t think I’ll be watching this film again even if it’s terrific.

  6. ruth says:

    Hey we share the same rating for this. I too appreciate this and admire the artistry and most of the performances, but it’s not exactly an enjoyable film. I had the opportunity to see it a second time within a couple of weeks but I just couldn’t do it. Some of the images are still haunting me, but yeah the cinematography is beautiful.

  7. Jess says:

    I agree with your 4/5 on this. It’s a very good film, but when it’s being touted as SO masterful and essential it’s hard for to get on the same page as the hardcore fans. It probably makes it seem like I liked it less than I did. There were too many things out of step for it to be as perfect as it’s claimed to be. Your complaint about the passage of time is something that really stuck out to me and lessened the impact of the film but I’ve hardly heard anyone bring it up. I also wasn’t a fan at some of the theatrical dialogue and also Brad Pitt’s character. Excellent performances overall though.

  8. I must be the only person in the world not to have seen this!

  9. sati says:

    I agree about the issues with a script, it was very hard for me to be interested in Solomon, the film shouldn’t just expect me to feel bad for him because of the situation, they really made absolutely no effort for me to get to know him as a man. I thought it was a good movie but it’s very overrated.

    • I wouldn’t go so far as to say overrated as I think it’s worthy of much of the acclaim it’s getting but it’s by no means perfect. We definitely needed more time with Solomon and his family just so we know them more as ordinary people before their lives get turned upside down.

  10. thomasjford says:

    Agree with most people – it’s the best film I’ll never see again!

  11. Excellent review, Chris. Depressing, yes. The passage of time issue? Yes, I see your point. 12 days or 12 years. Truly, that’s a pretty big flaw. But like everyone has mentioned, the performances are so well played out, one forgives.

  12. ckckred says:

    Nice review. I agree it’s a hard film to watch and not one I’m likely going to see in a while. But the movie really played well for me and depicted slavery like no other movie I’ve seen before.

  13. hybridZone says:

    This was such a powerful movie, I do hope chiwetel wins the oscar.

  14. Mark Walker says:

    Great point about the time spent with Solomon and his family, Chris. Because there was so little it actually affected the payoff at the end. It wasn’t quite as powerful as it could have been. And the passage of time overall was not handled very well. Still, it’s a brilliant film and there’s no doubt about the quality on show.

  15. Dan says:

    I’m still waiting to be entertained by Steve McQueen and that’s a good thing because I hope it never happens. He is a filmmaker who simply captivates by delivering characters with traits/hopes/dreams that you might never have known existed or may have until now ignored, in a way that enthralls. He has to be one of the most interesting mainstream directors on the circuit right now.

  16. vinnieh says:

    Excellent review, it really is a powerful film that I can’t stop thinking about.

  17. Nice review! Although I fairly enjoyed the movie, I completely agree with your cons – especially the one about the passage of time.

    Dorian

  18. table9mutant says:

    Excellent review. : ) I almost went to this today but… I just can’t. :-/ Went to Inside Llewyn Davis instead. I’m not good with “heavy” films. I know I should really watch it…

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