“12 Years a Slave” Review


12 Years a Slave (2013)

Coming from Steve McQueen, ‘12 Years a Slave’ can now be comfortably described as this year’s cinematic sensation. The film, based on a self-autobiographical novel by Solomon Northup, recounting true events, tells the story of a black free man, who lives a happy life with his family in Saratoga, New York in 1841. After he is tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, his life turns up-side-down and a once brilliant musician and an educated family man is now forced to endure the unjust hard life of a slave in Louisiana. The film is very truthful to Northump’s novel, and is filled with so much realism and outstanding acting/directing, that putting this into perspective, when Brad Pitt’s character, Bass, a Canadian carpenter, starts talking about freedom and black people’s rights at the very end of the film, we may find it hard to believe a word he says – so engrossed we have become in the political and social ideology of that time, and in black people’s lives on a plantation in Louisiana in 1840s. This is no exaggeration.

Before the film’s release, in my pre-view, I debated McQueen’s choice of the topic, speculating that a lot has already been said on the topic of slavery, and thinking it would be hard to reach out and produce something original. And, it would probably be difficult to produce originality in this theme for any other director, but this is Steve McQueen – the director who does not hide from the difficult, shocking or controversial, and likes to portray it as it is. After grossly underrated and largely unjustly ignored ‘Hunger’ (2008) and ‘Shame’ (2011), it is a relief to find out that McQueen’s talent is finally dully acknowledged by numerous nominations and awards which ‘12 Years a Slave’ has received so far (more than 250 overall?). Some say that ‘12 Years a Slave’ sets a new standard for realist cinematography with McQueen and Fassbender pioneering the movement, and it is often sad to point out that such a cinematic brilliance has already been set in their previous films (but maybe not in such large a scale), but strangely went almost unnoticed. ‘12 Years a Slave’ is nominated for 9 Academy Awards this year, and yes, I do expect it to win in the Best Picture Category.

Having said that, ‘12 Years a Slave’ is probably not a film to watch after a hard day’s work to relax; most of the time the film is very hard to watch, and certain scenes are bound to leave one rooted to the chair, if not in shock, than in sheer amazement. It seems that if McQueen’s aim was to gain its audience’s full and undivided attention, he definitely succeeded there. One won’t be fiddling with one’s clothes or let one’s eyes wonder in boredom while watching this one, and the director knows it. McQueen knows exactly how to produce the biggest impact with a controversial topic, and one does not even begin to imagine, before the viewing, the sheer force of the impact which ‘12 Years a Slave’ is capable of producing. McQueen is to be applauded for the realism the film displays. ‘12 Years a Slave’ watches almost like a documentary, and, as one critic notes, the film is probably ‘the most important film ever made on the topic of slavery in the US’. After the viewing, it seems that this statement is almost an understatement, considering the sheer amount and quality of detail of a daily life of a slave which is on display here.

Here probably comes the only criticism I can direct regarding this movie. Depressingly realistic scenes are stylishly executed, with lingering shots and wonderful use of music (composed by Hans Zimmer, and getting dangerously close to Inception’s soundtrack), but they are arguably one too many. It would have been better to include in the midst of all the horror we see some brighter and more light-hearted material, but the film is devised in such a way that its audience is not allowed to catch even a moment’s breath until the very end. It is also perplexing to hear so much/and see Brad Pitt’s front credits for this film, considering that he appears in the movie only for a brief period of time (director’s cut?). Also, if one thinks that ‘12 Years a Slave’ is this inspirational film about combating slavery in the US, one will be disappointed (the trailer may give that impression – but this is noAmazing Grace’ (2006) and it is light-years away from ‘Django Unchained’ (2012)).

The performances in ‘12 Years a Slave’ are nothing short of brave and powerful, and given the context in which they are played out, it is no wonder to hear of nervous breakdowns of actors on the set, e.g. as in the case of Williams and Fassbender. In fact, beatings, lynchings, family separations and other degradations all take place in ’12 Years a Slave’, and if the actors are not completely exhausted by the end, their audience will be. Chiwetel Ejiofor, although initially refusing to accept the role, gives a truly humane and humble performance of a man who has suffered a gross injustice. Lupita Nyong’o plays a pretty slave girl who becomes an object of constant attention of her despotic master, and for a newcomer, Nyong’o’s performance is brilliant. Nyong’o and Ejiofor are both this year’s nominees for the Academy Awards. The film also features Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sarah Paulson who are all good in their small roles. If there was a real revelation in the film, it was probably Michael Fassbender, who plays Edwynn Epps, a cruel plantation owner of Solomon (Platt). From his role in Jane Eyre’ (2011) and ‘Shame’ one can see clearly that Fassbender is capable of portraying arrogance and complete emotional detachment with some degree of excellent, but his role in ‘12 Years a Slave’ is in a completely different league. Fassbender is so believable in this role of a despotic slave-owner, it is truly frightening to see him on screen: so unpredictable and terrifying his character’s behaviour is. Fassbender gives the performance of his career to date, truly deserving of his Academy Award nomination.

When I said in my previous review that Alfonso Cuaron’s ‘Gravity(2013) is visually spectacular, but easily forgettable, I might not meant it in such strong terms, but upon viewing Steve McQueen’s ’12 Years a Slave’, maybe I meant just that. After all the special effects and Clooney’s up-beat personality in ‘Gravity’ slowly fade away, the silently persisting and shocking themes of ‘12 Years a Slave’ virtually guarantee the iron-solid imprinting on our minds.

Overall, it is only too clear that ‘12 Years a Slave’ is a masterpiece of a kind. Although the film can provide for a very uncomfortable and even depressing viewing, it is never short of brilliant in terms of cinematography, acting, directing or overall topic presentation. It is high on realism; intense, brave, nuanced, stylish, incredibly thought-provoking, and would probably count as one of the best artistic films ever made.10/10

20 Responses to “12 Years a Slave” Review

  1. jjames36 says:

    Amen on all counts. Without question one of the best films I have ever seen, if only because it is not only unflinchingly perfect in the way it addresses slavery, but also not really about slavery, per se. It is about how corrupt systems corrupt people and make us do terrible things to each other. That very thing still happens today – see the Catholic Church protecting pedophiles, suicide bombers, African gangsters’ treatment of civilians, any ethnic cleansing campaign and so many other examples. I have never before seen Systems Theory be so well handled in a piece of fiction.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Yes, interesting take, though I am not completely shocked by the film’s turn of events – black people at that time are bound to be very vulnerable, whether free or not, and given the climate, ideology and the prevalence of slavery at that time, something like that was bound to happen to some black free man someday.

      • jjames36 says:

        No doubt.

        But if any of the white kidnappers had actually stopped to think, “By all accounts, these black people I’m apprehending appear to be people. And if they are, is what I’m doing just? Would I do this to a white person?” they would have been appalled, like we are, by their actions. But they never asked such questions, because they lived in a system that told them not to.

        Therein is why Cumberbatch’s character is my favorite in this movie. He really does seem like he would have been a good man in a different situation.

        • dbmoviesblog says:

          I enjoyed Cumberbatch’s performance in the film. And what about all the rumours about the New York City commissioner’s ancestors being slaves of Cumberbatch’s family? These ‘facts’ came out after the film, like this matters? or they had to justify his involvement in the movie? Cumberbatch also played a prominent role in ‘Amazing Grace’, a good film about the fight against slavery in England.

  2. keith7198 says:

    Strong review of a very strong movie. Some powerful performances throughout this moving story. I had a few issues with it that kept it from being perfect (I’m looking at you Brad Pitt), but still its a magnificent film!

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thank you. I have an issue with Brad Pitt too. I am puzzled by his brief appearance. He is surely not there to boost the film’s ‘credentials’. I honestly found him and his acting more than distracting, and other lesser known actor would have done his job just as well, and maybe even better.

  3. Very nicely argued. I’m sad by the backlash this film has experienced. You can tell it’s awards season can’t you? I honestly feel this film will rise in stature over the next 10-20 years. A true masterpiece.

  4. CMrok93 says:

    I felt like this one was a bit overrated, but if it wins Best Picture, I’d have no problem with that whatsoever. It’s an important movie that should be seen by almost anyone and everyone who thinks that they don’t know all that there is they need to know about slavery. Good review.

  5. markkadams says:

    I’m pulling for 12 Years to win Best Picture tonight — it’s easily the best of the year.

  6. thycriticman says:

    Greatly written review, and you speak nothing but the truth. Perfect score fits the bill! I understand the lack of Pitt, despite the marketing being odd, but we didn’t need for long anyways! Your points about Gravity were music to my ears.

    • dbmoviesblog says:

      Thanks for your comment. My points about ‘Gravity’? Really? I am so glad to hear that because with all the recent fuss over ‘Gravity’ and its undeniable ‘brilliance’ I thought I was the only one thinking that.

      • thycriticman says:

        Nope, you are not alone. Yes, Gravity was brilliant in the sense of the director having a great vision, and it has terrific CGI. However, the script was lacking, and I found myself bored. What’s worse? The dialogue of Clooney. As he is falling in risk of death, “Don’t I just have the most gorgeous eyes?”. ARE YOU KIDDING ME? haha.

        • dbmoviesblog says:

          Yes, haha, that was something, and I do agree with you about the story which is essentially lacking for such a major film; I am one of those people who prefers the quality story over special effects and I think it is very important for the audience to actually believe in what was happening on screen, that’s why what also annoyed me a bit was how they managed to make Clooney’s character this hero of all times, this funny guy who is willing to sacrifice himself for others – that’s fine, but if you look at many of his other films, especially recent ones – he just appeared there a complete and utter cynic. It is very hard to forget this image of his while watching ‘Gravity’, and it is this lack of belief in the dialogue’s genuineness and his real character in ‘Gravity’ which troubled me. That’s why I thought maybe some other actor would have done a better job.

          • thycriticman says:

            I agree 100%. I am not a big Clooney fan, and after Gravity, not sure if his name will ever sell me a movie ticket again. Even Doctor Stone was bad when you think about it. Who would let a moron like that into space? I can deal with silliness, but when the movie is blatantly throwing theme after theme, and combining it with headache inducing characters….it was just….not my favorite.

  7. vinnieh says:

    Great review, such a visceral and powerful movie.

  8. Jeff Rivera says:

    Great review! I agree, wonderful performances, and a film I won’t forget anytime soon! I really like the movie, but I think it could have shortened a little. For example, there was a scene when it was just the main character’s face staring into space. Nothing was happening, and I think I got the gist of the scene, but it lasted way too long for my taste. Maybe it’s just me, but there were several scenes like that throughout the film that could have shortened, and may have improved the movie even more.

  9. A really powerful movie that deserves to be seen and praised. Steve McQueen’s made a fantastic job!

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