You pretty much know what you’re getting into with any movie dealing realistically with slavery. You’re going to be mad, you’re going to be sad, and you’re going to be ashamed that this was ever considered okay in our humanity’s history. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t contain any groundbreaking revelations about the brutality that slaves endured or the squalid conditions in which they lived, but it is an exceptionally well-made biography of an incredible man that features the performance of the year from Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Ejiofor is Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga, New York. He is an accomplished violinist and a family man. One day he is approached by a couple of men to join a traveling music show. Little does he know that the men are kidnappers and he is about to be sold into slavery in Louisiana.
John Ridley’s screenplay, working from Northup’s own book, effectively captures the vile and hate-filled speech that permeated every day of a slave’s life. If you’re sensitive about copious use of the n-word, you’d best not see this. Northup goes from being distraught about his situation to quietly accepting it, all in the hope that he will someday be freed since he was a free man to begin with. His first “master,” Ford (Cumberpatch), takes to his skills as a violinist and seems to treat his slaves with more civility (relatively speaking) than other land owners. Things go from bad to worse when Northup winds up on Edwin Epps’ (Fassbender) plantation. Epps is an abusive, horrid person who will use any means necessary to discipline his “property.” His mistress (Paulson) is just as bad.
Director Steve McQueen doesn’t pull any punches with this material. While many of the sequences have been seen in other films that deal with the same material (Roots), rarely has it felt this real and personal. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who’s always been a dependable character actor, turns in his star performance here. His face emits every emotion on the spectrum and he’s the reason the film is able to plumb the depths it does. Memorable supporting work is turned in by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the most productive and most abused slave on Epps’ plantation. Michael Fassbender, as Epps, is one of the most evil characters in any film of recent memory.
12 Years a Slave gets buttoned up very quickly in its final ten minutes and feels a little too abrupt in its conclusion. More insight into what Solomon’s family was doing while he was away would have added even more punch to an already-emotional ending. No one will ever call this film an easy watch (repeat viewings would seem impossible), but it is an authentic, stunning, and moving work about the darkest reaches of American history.
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Length: 134 Minutes
Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
Theatrical Release: November 8, 2013
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley. Based upon the book of the same name by Solomon Northup.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch