12 Years a Slave Review

Posted: November 11, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

12YAS-Poster-ArtWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

In 2008, an excellent film called Hunger marked the arrival of one of the best new directors to emerge in some time. That filmmaker was of course Steve McQueen, and any doubt of his talent was quickly silenced by 2011’s Shame, a film arguably better than McQueen’s freshman effort. Each film brought McQueen more and more acclaim, and as a result higher expectations for his next project. Arriving to rave reviews and tremendous Oscar buzz, I can safely say that 12 Years a Slave lives up to the hype.

Based on a true story, the film opens in 1841 and follows Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a free black man living in Saratoga, New York. A well-respected violinist, Solomon is contacted by two men who wish to bring him to Washington and perform for them. Solomon agrees, but the men’s offer is really a scheme to drug Solomon and sell him into slavery. Initially, Solomon speaks of his freedom, but finds himself powerless to the various slave owners. From there, Solomon passes through the ownership of various white men, the business driven Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the relatively more kind William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and the psychotic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon also develops relationships with other slaves, notably Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the latter of which is particularly tormented by Epps.

It probably goes without saying, but the story here can be very emotionally draining. The trials which Solomon goes through are horrifying, and the fact that real people actually went through these hardships makes the viewing all the more powerful. I applaud Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley for tackling the subject matter and for facing it as bravely and honestly as they have. Slavery may not be an enjoyable topic, but it is important to history and deserves to be confronted. Though such confrontation is not easy, McQueen proves up to the challenge. With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen has crafted a work which is not only honest, but also extraordinarily powerful and moving. The film is so powerful in fact that at times the film can be very difficult to watch. Even the most hardened viewers will likely find themselves shaken, cheeks streaming with tears. This is the result of the physical horrors inflicted on the slaves, which McQueen presents as brutal but not exploitive. A whipping scene near the end is especially harrowing. However, even worse than the physical degradation is the mental anguish Solomon and other slaves are made victim to. From the frequent taunting of their masters to the fear of more violence inflicted upon them, a sense of psychological trauma is indebted into each of the slaves as well as the audience. It is brutal, but never in a way that feels like it is trying to shock. Instead, the film feels very truthful in its portrayal.

The film is driven by a career changing performance from Chiwetel Ejifor. Solomon Northup is in every scene in the film and endures grueling torment. It’s a daunting role, but thankfully Chiwetel Ejifor is heartbreakingly good as Solomon Northup. He brings a tremendous power to the role and hits every emotional beat flawlessly. It would have been easy for an actor to play Northup in a melodramatic fashion, but Ejifor never falls into that trap hole. In his hands, Solomon Northup is real, his emotions raw and bare. Though unable to speak freely about his condition, Ejifor’s eyes and body language express more than any words could. Ejifor also subtly manages to bring a lot of character to the part and handles the gradual broke down of Northup’s spirit with masterful skill. I’ve always liked Ejifor, but I never would have expected him to pull off a role this powerful and nuanced.

Supporting Ejifor is a plethora of great actors, many of which are at the top of their game. Michael Fassbender has always done excellent work with McQueen and continues that trend here as the vile slave owner Edwin Epps. Fassbender effectively makes Epps a detestable person, but still holds onto a shred of humanity. This humanity is important because it keeps Epps feeling real, and I don’t doubt Fassbender’s portrayal is accurate to what the real Epps was like. Newcomer Lupita N’yongo is a tremendous find and delivers a fantastic performance. I can’t wait to see her in more. Other great performances are given by Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Brad Pitt.

On a technical level, 12 Years a Slave is bursting with polish. The cinematography is very professional and McQueen knows how to capture engaging imagery. The film is also very well-edited in that it keeps things moving while still letting the audience breath. Hans Zimmer delivers a haunting score which accentuates the already heightened emotions of the film. I also greatly admired a lot of the stylistic choices McQueen made. Not many filmmakers would have a shot last for several minutes at a time without the camera moving. Fewer still would have several shots like this. But McQueen does have these moments, and whether the purpose be to fully take in a character’s emotion or to effectively demonstrate the inner workings of a slave plantation, 12 Years a Slave is all the better for having them.

12 Years a Slave is a significant accomplishment. On a purely filmmaking level, 12 Years a Slave is a masterful work which further solidifies Steve McQueen as one of the best filmmakers working today. Beyond that, the film is a brave portrayal of a dark time in history which is able to conjure up levels of emotion in any given scene than most films ever could. It isn’t an easy watch, and I imagine a lot of people will try to avoid a movie about slavery. But the fact is movies like this need to be made, and this one needs to be seen.


  1. ianthecool says:

    I certainly dont want to avoid it, its just a matter of finding someone else to go see it with me, sinc you’re right many will want to.

  2. moviebuff801 says:

    Great review. I agree completely with everything you say.

  3. vinnieh says:

    Great review, I’m going to see this ASAP.

  4. Jeff Rivera says:

    Awesome review, Daniel. I agree that Chiwetel Ejifor did an excellent job! It’s hard to believe that was how America once was. I’m glad movies like, 12 Years A Slave, are there to remind us of it. I think we all need to be reminded once awhile to learn once for all that all people should be treated equally, and given the respect they deserve.

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