Film Review : 12 Years a Slave (2013)

IMDB Score – 8.3
Rotten Tomato Score – 96%

In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring : Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, and Adepero Oduye

“…and they STILL won’t let us shop at Barney’s!”

This was the exclamation of an elderly gentleman to the theater as the credits began to roll and he started his way out of the theater. It’s been a 150 years but the sting of slavery still has a lasting effect on our society no matter how hard we try to douse it in petrol fuel and light it on fire. There isn’t any forgetting what heinous and unspeakable things human beings did to one another back then. All we can do is try to understand what happened and how it can never happen again. 12 Years a Slave for me was a window into what happened all those years ago. It was a raw viewing experience as there ever was and completely unapologetic to people it may offend. The offenses on the screen are what should be apologized for and it is an important film to see.

Steve McQueen burst onto the scene with Hunger, a film about Bobby Sands and his hunger strike in a Northern Irish prison. The film dealt with standing up for what you believe in even when facing a slow and painful death. McQueen utilized some of the best uses of unbroken camera work I’ve ever seen which includes a twenty plus minute take with star Michael Fassbender and Liam Cunningham. His next film Shame, also starring Fassbender, dealt with the subject of addiction and how it can infest a person to the point of near madness. The film also showcased McQueen’s natural talent behind the camera as we were taken through the streets of New York City in an un-blinking fashion. 12 Years a Slave is McQueen’s tour de force film. Even with a minimal budget, the film feels like culmination of years behind the camera. There are many scenes in this film that show the brutality of slave owners. They are hard to watch and continue longer than they should but this is not a negative. McQueen is forcing us to watch what happened back then. There was no cut scene when somebody is getting lashed within one inch of their life and there is no cut scene here. 12 Years a Slave is a force that will open your eyes whether you like it or not. It really is important cinema.

The acting is also something to be grateful for. In my mind there are definitely two, possibly three performances that will be recognized come awards season. Chiwetel Ejiofor leads this film. He is in nearly every scene and the emotion on his face never leaves or lets us catch our breath. Michael Fassbender is an animal. There is no doubt in my mind that he is going to be one of the best actors of our time. He unleashes such hate and evil from his character that even though I wanted to smash in his face the entire time, I still couldn’t take my eyes off him. Lupita Nyong’o is the darkhorse. She didn’t didn’t do it quietly but she gave one of the more emotionally powerful performances from a small but important character. All three were fantastic and real.

I guess the only negative thing I could really say about this film is that the story was a bit lacking. It didn’t carry the film like the performances or theme did. I understand it was a true story but I was more horrified and enthralled by what I was seeing then wondering where it was going to all end up. It was a small negative from and overall excellent film that is going to be required viewing for years to come as we advance as a society.


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