FILM REVIEW: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, 2013)

This is not an easy film to watch. And that is why you need to watch it. 12 Years a Slave chronicles the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) – a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. From the outset it is grim – we know that he has a long twelve years ahead of him. Hans Zimmer’s score captures the sense of foreboding and sets up what is ahead as a horror film of sorts.Director Steve McQueen certainly does not shy away from illustrating the brutality of Solomon’s experience. He utilises long, lingering shots that are almost unbearable to sit through. Make no mistake, that’s not because they are boring. It’s because they force the viewer to confront the atrocities that were committed in this dark page of history.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

This film makes you simultaneously feel thankful for how far society has come, but also incredibly depressed that this depravity ever occurred in the first place (and still does in certain parts of the world). It is extremely difficult to consider how blindly slavery was accepted in society and the justifications that certain individuals made for their inhumane treatment of their fellow man. This is particularly apparent for Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) – the main villain of the piece. I had to work extremely hard to understand his mindset – I found myself sitting there for some time just thinking: People cannot do this. This is incomprehensible. What other explanation is there other than that he is pure evil? But as we all know, people will always find a way to justify their actions, no matter how vile. Epps repeatedly states that Solomon is his ‘property’, and it is this dehumanisation that allows him to morally disengage and treat his slaves with little regard. He may well have been a psychopath but this may be a dangerous assumption, and an all too easy way for the viewer to write off the potential for society to be accepting of further heinous acts by man in the future. In fact, if you need a reminder of society’s lack of humanity today, take a look at the imdb.com message boards for this film. Topics include “I don’t have any sympathy for black people”, “Slavery ended in 1865! Blacks get over it!”, and “How many innocent white people will be assaulted because of this movie?” Make no mistake, racism is still alive and well. And everyone has the capacity to be cruel under the right circumstances. At the risk of sounding preachy: That is why these stories need to be told, no matter how long ago they occurred. And it is also why we need to see films like this. We can’t forget our past mistakes. It’s not just American history. It is world history. It is about what we, as humans, are capable of.

Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender and Chiwetel Ejiofor

It almost seems trivial to mention the acting considering these themes. However, these are performances deserving of praise. Chiwetel Ejiofor was extremely impressive as Solomon and no doubt had to go to very dark places to give this convincing performance. For that he should be applauded. He never over-did it but damn it, he did it well. The Fassbender was incredible as the bastard Epps, but God I hated him. It was almost difficult to respect his fine acting because of how angry I felt every time he showed his face. And that proves he did a damn good job. In fact all the ‘villains’ of the film impressed. It was disappointing to see my much-loved Paul Giamatti play a complete prick of a man, but again he convinced so touché. Sarah Paulson as Epps’ wife was truly terrifying, and Paul Dano: holy crap he is good. Lupita Nyong’o as fellow slave Patsey gave an amazing performance and I look forward to seeing more of her as she continues her rise in Hollywood. Benedict Cumberbatch played Solomon’s first master, Ford, and beautifully demonstrated the moral ambiguity of those who felt they had no choice but to go along with what was socially acceptable at the time. Brad Pitt played the hero, Bass, which made me want to roll my eyes a bit because of course the executive producer plays the hero – LAME. But there are those who argue that this is incredibly apt given Brad Pitt is the one who brought Solomon’s story to the masses, and for that he is heroic.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor

12 Years a Slave is currently the front-runner to win Best Picture at the Oscars next month, and this is well-deserved. This is such an important story that serves as a crucial reminder of the abominable acts that humans have committed and will continue to commit if we let them. It is disappointing that prior to its release I did not see a single trailer for this film (and I go to the cinema A LOT) and that various outlets are not even screening it. To that I say: what the ****? But I’ll refrain from going into a rant about what terrible taste the general public has in films. Just do yourself a favour and see this. It is not easy to watch and as the credits rolled I needed a moment to compose myself. Obviously, he is a slave for 12 years and writes a book about it so I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say he survives his ordeal. Knowing this, you expect to find relief in its closing moments. But you don’t really. Watching this will test you. But in the scheme of what some humans go through, sitting through a difficult film for 2 hours is hardly a challenge, is it? PLEASE WATCH THIS.

5 stars

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