12 Years A Slave has been one of the year’s most anticipated movies for cinephiles because of its high profile cast, new take on a familiar subject matter, and Steve McQueen’s first film following his critical hit and cult breakout “Shame”. The movie looks to present American slavery in a new light by telling the story from an enslaved African American’s perspective which is something Hollywood has up to this point mostly avoided. Does this movie bring a new spin to get to the core of the darkest days of American history or is this movie just using controversy to get to the biggest awards at this year’s Oscars?
12 Years a Slave is set in 1841 in the years leading up to the Civil War. The movie follows Solomon Northup(Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man with a family living in New York who has a talent for playing the violin. Solomon is offered a job and travels to Washington D.C. where he is kidnapped and then sold into slavery. Solomon’s name is changed to Platt and he is passed from slave owner until he eventually ends up in the hands of Edwin Epps(Michael Fassbender), a cruel and relentless slave owner. Through his journey, Solomon must learn how to survive and find the hope he needs to believe that he can still return to his home and family.
“Twelve Years a Slave” is both a magnificently brutal introspection of the greatest sins in American history and an incredible and heartbreaking story of one man’s journey to return to to his family. The movie doesn’t shy away from the darkness of the time and presents the issue as dirty, gritty, and detestable. People in this movie are beaten, raped, and flogged which makes this movie increasingly difficult to watch. Despite this difficulty, the movie is a breath of fresh air with its high brow tone and down to earth and accessible story telling style. There hasn’t been a story about slavery from the perspective of a slave that has crossed the big screen, at least not in recent memory. This movie isn’t just a movie trying to be political for the sake of attention, it’s telling a story from a perspective we’ve heard very little about. What was life like for the slaves who lived before the Civil War and the days of the thirteenth amendment? What did the world look like when you were discounted as a few dollars short of a pack mule? We’ve seen plenty of movies detailing the stories about those who liberated slaves and fought for equality, but we’ve never witnessed the story of the slave fighting for his own liberation.
Director Steve McQueen navigates these touchy waters by keeping the story human first, commentary second. This is a movie that is first and foremost about Solomon Northup and his courageous and trying journey. Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an excellent lead performance as a man who has lost absolutely everything including his own dignity, yet finds ways to persevere through his circumstances to find hope in the most unlikely places. Perhaps the movie’s most powerful moments are when Solomon is by himself working or writing a letter. Little is ever said, but the raw emotion on his face is enough to paint the status of this man’s heart and mind. The supporting cast in this movie is equally notable with heavyweights like Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano all playing roles of various sizes. They all deliver in spades with Fassbender playing borderline insane and abusive slave owner to perfection by being as despicable as possible. The production of this movie is great all around, but even more than the unique direction, the acting shines through as its greatest strength.
The direction of this movie borders somewhere between mainstream and high brow artistic. The presentation is very accessible and easy to follow, but McQueen manages to sneak in plenty of his own stylistic flourishes that leave plenty of creativity and ambiguity. Themes of dehumanization, oppression, and separation run thick in the heart of “Twelve Years A Slave” and McQueen masterfully crafts them into his visual storytelling with ease. The story may be violent, but it’s a pretty straightforward viewing experience which is something that McQueen has not been known for with movies like “Shame”.
Much like Spielberg’s “Schiendler’s List” did for stories about the Holocaust, “12 Years a Slave” has set a new bar as the definitive story on slavery thanks to its boldly unflinching use of violence, focus on Northup’s experience, and direction that has an eye for the big questions lurking beneath the history of slavery. It asks the essential questions that nobody at the time was asking; What defines human and What is human worth? This is a movie that film lovers simply must see before the year is over. It isn’t an easy watch and it’s not one that should be taken lightly, but the movie is emotional, challenging, and sure to leave you chewing on ideas and questions as you leave the theater. This will be a film that will be remembered and it’s one you surely won’t want to miss before the Academy rolls out the read carpet next spring.
Twelve Years A Slave is telling a story that’s never been told before and it delivers not just with a compelling story that will move you to tears, but one that also asks tough moral questions about what happened and how it is relevant to the world we live in today.
The acting in this movie is nothing short of exceptional. Each actor sells their role to perfection with Chiwetel Ejiofor leading the charge with his turn as the man who lost everything and still found the spirit to fight. Michael Fassbender also turns in another impressive performance as the arguably senile and abusive slaveowner Edwin Epps.
Steve McQueen brings an outsider’s perspective on a story about slavery with direction that is equal parts accessible and ambiguous. There’s nothing difficult about understanding the story, but for those who are looking deeper, there is plenty to decipher.
Overall Effectiveness of the Film: 9.5
This is a movie that will be remembered as the movie that changed how we look at slavery in both film and historical context because of its use of unflinching violence that doesn’t shy away from the grittiness of the subject.