12 Years a Slave (2013) Review

In case you were wondering how exactly the last few hundred years panned out for an entire race of people, 12 Years a Slave, ladies and gentlemen. (The answer: Not well.)

12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery.

The film is a beautifully shot voyage through torture, suffering and hypocrisy, whose every heartbreak is mercilessly amplified by its adherence to true history. The film contains an all-star cast of first-rate performers (including Paul Dano, who seems to have cornered Hollywood’s market for sniveling cretins that will eventually be beaten about the face and neck).

There are many odious characters in this picture, Michael Fassbender’s drunken Master Epps and his hateful wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) certainly standouts. But no villain in recent Hollywood history compares to Paul Giamatti’s slavemonger, whose compassion “extends the length of a coin.” He is in the movie for about six minutes and his commitment to that dictum leaves a rank and lasting impression.

I find that I haven’t much to say in this review. The movie’s plot is instantly comprehended. It is about a free man who is sold into slavery, it follows his experiences on several plantations in the South, and then it ends. What makes this film so powerful is the excellent direction by Steve McQueen, whose lingering shots force the viewer to meditate on what is happening onscreen. There are many such lingering shots, each of which filled my heart with dread and disgust at what was transpiring.

Some critics have accused the film of reveling in its scenes of despair and torture to satisfy white guilt in the manner that Gibson’s Passion of the Christ satisfied some sort of masochistic blood lust. While 12 Years is indeed relentless in what it shows, its violence is presented as a counterpoint to the relentless religiousness and “manners” of the world around it. The hypocrisy of slavery infects its enforcers and victims alike and this tale, from the memoir of a living, breathing man, forces viewers to confront this living, breathing institution that existed for so much of America’s history.

In one scene Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is nearly lynched by a carpenter he struck. He is put in the noose and raised up but saved from death by the overseer of the plantation, who chases the carpenter and his lackeys off. But this is not an act of compassion. Northup is a piece of property, to do with as his master decides and no other. Though the overseer saves him from death, he leaves him to balance on his toes for hours as punishment for his crime. While Northup dangles the life of the plantation goes on around him: slaves go about their business, children play in the field, and he chokes and spins.

12 Years a Slave is actually not the story of one man’s journey through Hell. It is a startling depiction of “how we were” not so very long ago. The film is well acted and set to an entrancing score by Hans Zimmer that pulsates with insidiousness, but the reason to watch is the world that it unearths. Evil thrives on the backs of tradition, greed and sanctimoniousness – and that has remained unchanged throughout history.

Truthfully, the dialogue and the steps of this narrative have already faded for me. The film functions more as a visual journey than a masterfully written first, second and third act. But its images and its atmosphere of dread and injustice cannot be ignored. They remain, and they are important.

Based on Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

12 Years a Slave (2013)
Directed by Steve McQueen
Fox Searchlight Pictures
134 Minutes

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4 Comments on 12 Years a Slave (2013) Review


    I didn’t realize it was based off a book. So, does that mean it has a happy-ish ending?

    Great review!

    • Thanks! To answer your questions-

      1) I had this same reaction initially, but this is a different Steve McQueen.

      2) The book sort of has a “happy-ish” ending, in that Northup became an ardent abolitionist and made it his mission to tell the world about the evils of slavery. He was freed less than 10 years before the Civil War started. Unfortunately, his real life did not have a happy ending. How, when and where he died is unknown. It’s possible that he was kidnapped again or murdered.

      • Oh. Distant relative perhaps?

        This is almost irrelevant to that, but I’m just utterly fascinated it was a book because I’ve read “The Life of Frederick Douglass” for middle school, high school, and college. It’s a small book, so I’m sure that’s part of the appeal to middle school, but I’m genuinely baffled this book was never mentioned.

        The perk of Frederick’s tale is that he taught himself how to read and write, but it sounds like Northup must’ve done the same. I’m just bummed I missed it.

        • Actually, Northup was born free and educated in the North, whereas Douglass was born a slave and taught to read and write later. I, too, was curious why I’d never heard of his memoir before, but I assume Douglass’ work overshadowed it.

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