Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]

12 Years a Slave [2013]
Director: Steve McQueen
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Genre: Biography/Drama/History
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt
Running Time: 134 minutes

No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.

Based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northrup, Steve McQueen’s latest effort unflinchingly shows the horrific atrocities of slavery in the southern United States. In 1841, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in what is sure to be an Oscar-nominated performance) is a free black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist, he is offered the chance to go on tour with a band in a traveling circus. However, this turns out to be a ruse, as Solomon is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery during a night out in Washington DC.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Forced to use a new name, “Platt”, Northrup is now treated as if he were a piece of property, being traded among multiple owners. His pleas describing how he is actually a free man fall on deaf ears. His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), appears to have a slight bit of compassion, but make no mistake: he’s still a slaver. An incident on the plantation prompts Ford to send Northrup away to the only other owner who will take him: the brutally violent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). From there, Solomon’s plight only gets worse.

Epps essentially serves as the film’s main villain, a drunken, religious nutjob with a tough wife (Sarah Paulson) and an obsession with one of his female slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). If any of his slaves fail to meet his daily quota in terms of cotton picked, they are taken out back and whipped over and over again. Both Northrup and Patsey feel the rage of Epps, and these moments make up some of the film’s most disturbing scenes.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

By all means, 12 Years a Slave is a difficult watch. McQueen is relentless in exposing us to the heinous reality of slavery, particularly through his signature long takes. One of the most uncomfortable examples of this involves an unhinged Paul Dano (playing a plantation overseer) beating Northrup repeatedly before proceeding to hang him from a tree. Although Dano’s character is forced to stop, nonetheless Northrup is still left hanging, with just the tips of his toes able to support him on the ground. It’s a disgusting sequence, and McQueen makes sure to show us damn near every minute of it.

By the end of the film, I was a wreck. I was so angry at what was happening on screen, and it made me sit down and start to reflect on my country. Although legal slavery in the U.S. and the subsequent Civil War happened 150+ years ago, that’s really not all that long ago. It’s mind-boggling to think that this happened at all, let alone in the not-so-distant past. I felt like I was put through the wringer, and chances are most will feel this same way.

12 Years a Slave [2013]

Everyone involved with this film is in top form here. Ejiofor is sure to get endless acclaim during awards season, and any accolades are well-deserved. I can’t think of a better leading man for this role. Fassbender is terrifying and unpredictable as a sadistic slave owner, further cementing his status as one of the best in the business right now. The supporting cast, which consists of such big names as Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, all turn in noteworthy performances, but special mention must be made of two of the most prominent women in the film: Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Paulson is the perfect counterpart as Fassbender’s wife, driven by her intense jealousy, and frightening in her own way. Nyong’o, in her first feature film, is given some of the worst treatment, but she is more than up to the task. She is certainly someone to keep an eye out for in the near future.

12 Years a Slave is one of the most important films I have seen in some time. Not only is it the best 2013 film I have seen this year, it is the best film I have seen all year, period. It’s often a difficult watch, but it absolutely must be seen.


35 thoughts on “Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave [2013]

  1. sati says:

    I’m so glad you mentioned Paulson! She is such an immensely talented actress and for me she was the best in the cast here because she didn’t have any obviously meaty scenes but she still managed to create such a vivid character.

  2. Billy M. says:

    Great review man. I’ve read nothing but unabashed praise for this film so far. The subject matter didn’t really appeal to me, especially being released a year or so after the similarly themed and more wildly entertaining Django movie (although you can’t help that sort of thing) so in a way this is the harsh and cruel world of Django without the BS cinematic happy ending and all the action… but if this movie is truly of this level of all time classic quality I will definitely have to go and look it up sooner rather than later.

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Thanks man. This film is quite a bit different than Django Unchained though. Whereas Django was a ridiculous revenge fantasy (albeit a very entertaining one), this is a true story focusing on a free man forced into slavery. It really is the best film I have seen all year, and I highly recommend checking it out as soon as you get a chance.

  3. ruth says:

    “No film this year has left me as emotionally shaken as 12 Years a Slave.” I feel the same way, Eric! I saw it quite early in the morning and I remember my knees literally shaking as I sat motionless in a rather empty theater.

    I hope to review this soon, but glad we share similar thoughts on this one.

  4. Alex Withrow says:

    Great review, my friend. So happy to hear that you found this film important. I think that is one of the highest compliments we can give a movie. A harrowing achievement all around. McQueen is a master.

  5. kola simms says:

    I like the movie but I feel you’ll should stop making movies like this . we don’t need rememberence of those days. yes times are not exactly like that anymore but the younger generation wont understand it. but thank God there hasn’t been any trouble sense it played. And it really show’s how lazy ,hateful and how whit people inn those days wanted so bad to be superior over blacks when they felt blacks really was stronger than them. they were jealous of their smartness knowledge to learn and profect what white man taught them. and it show’s white man was the first to rape rob kidnap make people to suffer for their pleasure and power over another’s pain . but they were lust after child molestation started back then. And now black people now are good at sport’s so on and now make big monet even if their still exploded . so please find other movies too make . Yes I know its hard to make original movies that will be good but stop slavery movies ….

  6. The Blog of Big Ideas says:

    I still have to see this. So far I haven’t because it’s difficult to convince my friends to sit down to watch such a raw film about slavery, certainly not something that everyone is excited to see.
    I will, however, make every effort before it leaves theaters because I simply can’t wait for it to come out on video. Having said that, I’m a little surprised at the nearly universal acclaim this film has received, considering Steve McQueen tends to be a very polarizing director.
    I’ve heard great things about Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, which is surprising considering she’s a newcomer that attended a casting call for the role. I’m sure that Fassbender is great, as he tends to be in pretty much everything he does. Not to mention his role in Shame under Steve McQueen is one of the best acting displays I’ve ever seen.
    Nice review Eric!

    • Eric @ The Warning Sign says:

      Even if you have to go alone, man, this is a must see film. Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender are all so good in this. I think big things are in store for Nyong’o especially… it’s hard to believe this is her first role.

      Thanks as always for the kind words and thoughtful comments, Niels! Hope you’re able to see this film soon.

  7. jjames36 says:

    And again I completely agree. This one makes feel even worse because I know it’s not that far from what happens in the modern world. We might not enslave people anymore, but the world over has corrupt systems shamelessly exploiting and victimizing other human beings all the same.

    Such a powerful film.

  8. Victor De Leon says:

    I missed this review, Eric. Great job! I have this one lined up to watch this week. I liked that you mentioned Paulson. The complete cast looks amazing in this film. Good job! I have a feeling I will be liking this powerful movie. Thanks!

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