Film Review: 12 Years a Slave

There have been several films made about the horrors of American Slavery. Some, like Roots, have been cultural phenomenons. Last years Django Unchained appeared to revel in it’s slightly cartoonish exploitation. Also last year, was Lincoln, which dealt with the end of slavery as the law of the land. Few have the barbaric impact of Twelve Year a Slave. Director Steve McQueen has made a film that grabs you from the very first frame, and slowly tightens it’s grip on the viewer as two brutal, unflinching, raw, and sobering hours pass.

Solomon Northup is a talented musician and a free black man living in Upstate New York with his family in pre-Civil War America. He accepts a seminally lucrative offer to travel with a touring circus for a short stint, playing his violin for the dramatic enhancement of the show. Near the end of the tour, Soloman is kidnapped, shipped down south, and sold into the American Slave Trade. The next twelve years he is made to endure hard labor on one plantation after another, enduring all manner of horrors and unspeakable cruelty.

Here is the trailer.

It’s been a while since I felt like I was worked over like a punching bag in the theater. The last time was probably Schindler’s List, back in 1993. As then, I left the theater drained and speechless. I’ve needed a few days to process before I could even think about writing about it. There are scenes in this film that will haunt me for a very long time. Images burned into the back of my head that are not pleasant to revisit, but won’t go away.

It’s too easy to say that Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Soloman is magnificent. It is, but it is also much, much more. The camera makes us witnesses to terrible acts of human brutality, but Ejiofor’s reaction is our reaction. Through his eyes, we feel the horror, the shame, the helplessness.

High marks also to Michael Fassbender, who, if you’ll forgive the comparison, is every bit icy cold and evil as Ralph Fiennes was in the aforementioned Schindler’s List. He plays his role as a psychotic slave owner so well, that there is tension the moment he walks on screen. You know there will be violence, and blood, lots of blood, but he keeps the performance from settling into a groove, so you never know when or how it’s coming. Best to be alert.

Lupita Nyong'o is also incredible as Patsey, a slave woman caught between the unwanted lustful advances of Fassbender’s Master Epps, and the scorn of his jealous, spiteful wife.

Of course, the entire cast is exceptional. Paul Giamatti (who just may be the greatest character actor alive today) appears as a slave trader to the upper crust of society, while Benedict Cumberbatch plays Soloman’s first slave owner. Brad Pitt shows up near the end as Solomon’s one true ray of hope.

The film is well edited and beautifully photographed, but at the end of the day, I can’t escape how this film made me feel. Much of todays cinema dwells on laughs, thrills and awe. This film made me physically uncomfortable and had me squirming in my seat.  It’s not for the faint of heart. Director Steve McQueen has made a Masterwork, and it deserves your attention.