Review: 12 Years a Slave
An African American man living free with his family in pre-Civil War New York is drugged and kidnapped, forced into slavery in the Deep South. Without documentation or an ally, he passed along from owner to owner, forced to endure terrifying hardships and question what it means to be alive.
A star-studded cast is led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who will impress to no end as the titular slave, Soloman Northup. The slave owners include Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and a most a despicable Michael Fassbender. Lupita Nyong’o is noteworthy too as Patsey, a favourite slave of Fassbender’s Mr. Epps.
Sometimes the power of a drama can be judged by just how quickly and easily one rises from the seat as the credits roll. 12 Years a Slave will leave you stuck, floored, drained, blown away – of all that. This perfectly-executed, impeccably-acted historical drama based on a true story tells of Solomon Northup, a husband, father, and freeman from the North, kidnapped and sold into the slavery in the south.
The horrors are authentic and instant. Director Steve McQueen, who with Hunger and Shame has proven he is unreserved and direct, wraps his hand around your heart and slowly squeezes; it is stunning, and truly unforgettable.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is Northup, an educated, sophisticated man thrown into a life of servitude and hardship, forced to compromise his ideals and intelligence and find a balance between living and simply surviving. Ejiofor is captivating, a broken man with pained eyes and crushed spirit, longing for his wife and children who exist almost as a fading memory. We meet them early on and only briefly, but they can’t help but linger in our mind as we watch Northup struggle daily.
Passed between owners (including Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumbermatch), Northup watches as others are shot, lynched, raped – and some even saved – all while he has been forgotten. McQueen does not let up – there is hateful language and vile images, as he forces the viewer to endure pain and suffering that is palpable, holding onto some shots for what seems interminable stretches. There is no time to breath and feel comfortable.
Northup finds himself a slave of Edwin Epps (an impressive Michael Fassbender), a violent, deranged drunkard of a man who becomes obsessed with a young slave named Patsey while particularly dubious of Northup. Epps is different than other owners, some of which were interested in money and business (it’s not until much later a white man arrives with a trace of moral fortitude). The time at the Epps farm is the lengthiest, as well as the most tragic and harrowing as McQueen continues to tighten his grip.
When he finally does loosen just a bit, you’ll realize how exhausted you’ve been the entire time. Shocking, provocative, and powerful, it sets itself apart from more recent films surrounding American race relations. It’s more arresting than The Help or 42, grounded in reality than Django Unchained at it’s best moments, and is significantly disciplined and more serious than Lee Daniels The Butler, which is not to disparage those films.
12 Years a Slave is simply better from all the way through; it’s one of the best films of the year.
Should You See It?
Absolutely – though under what circumstance I cannot say for sure. This one will stay with you for a while, and likely leave you less than energized when its over.