12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave

  • Upsetting and well made, 12 Years a Slave is a dynamic film with terrific performances, equally strong writing and nigh impeccable direction. It isn’t easy to watch, but that is partially why its powerful.
  • Writer John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen craft an unflinching portrait of United States slavery, and in so doing analyze the way humanity victimizes others, using corrupt systems to moralize bad behavior. We do not gain insight into individual slavers’ psychology, but we do understand the institution of slavery, and thereby the ways tradition can corrupt human beings who might have been decent under different circumstances.
  • This theme is best communicated through William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems like a decent person until the moment he silences Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofer) from pleading for freedom. As Ford demonstrates, it is often easier to ignore than to confront immorality. Like most of us, he could be a good man, but he is also capable of atrocity, and like many others before and since, he does vile things because society accepts, maybe even expects, it.
  • Theme is not the screenplay’s only strength. The characters, most especially Solomon, are well developed. Even the primary villain, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is not one dimensional. He is evil, but he is also layered, at least to some extent, by an unbending conviction that what he does is right under the law, both mortal and divine.
  • Supporting characters like Bass (Brad Pitt), Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulsen), Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) are developed with just enough detail that they never feel archetypal or oversimplified.
  • The narrative is paced well, and every scene feels significant.
  • The film’s violence repulses, not excites, us. It is used sparingly and powerfully to make us feel the true horror of humanity’s capacity for mistreatment.
  • McQueen’s direction is impressive, most notably because he perfectly times extended shots of uncomfortable situations, as when someone sympathetic is whipped. He also wisely resists the urge to offer respite for the viewer. McQueen has the courage to immerse, to risk our discomfort, so that he can tell the story his subject demands.
  • This film’s score further communicates grimness.
  • The actors are also universally terrific. Fassbender and Ejiofer could receive multiple award nominations, and they will deserve each of them. The other actors more than hold their own, with Bendict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulsen serving as standouts.
  • 12 Years a Slave’s biggest flaw might be in how it marks passage of time, or rather in how it fails to do so. We never have a sense of the duration of Solomon’s enslavement, which means we do not feel, on a visceral level, just how long this extraordinary man endures.
  • But that is a minor misstep. 12 Years A Slave is a fantastic movie.
  • Final Grade: A

16 thoughts on “12 Years a Slave

  1. Great review James. That’s a much better point to make about the duration of his suffering feeling nondescript. We could gather from a few significant visual transitions (a few shots of some beautiful geographical scenery and such) that time is elapsing but yeah, we never quite know just how long this is all going on for. There’s one moment where the slaves are sent off of Epps’ estate to someone else’s for the winter season, but that’s about as specific as McQueen gets to showing us the length of time it took for him to become free again. I also thought his rescue was extremely contrived and was oddly handled. But like you said, these are minor flaws in an otherwise very solid film. I expect this to win many awards. Not just get nominated. But win them.

    • Thank you! You make several good points how McQueen hints at passage of time, but I maintain it could have been handled better. Just like you did.

      I wasn’t bothered by the treatment of Solomon’s rescue. The way they executed it, I think, was meant to surprise us, just like it surprised Solomon. A longer epilogue might have been nice, though.

      And agreed that award victories are in store for 12 Years a Slave. We’ll have to see which ones, but there will be some. That seems certain.

  2. I’m very interested in this film, and your excellent review just makes me want to see it more! Of course it also doesn’t hurt that I’m a huge Cumberbatch fan. Haha.

    • Thanks!

      As far as I’m concerned … You do. Everyone should. I haven’t seen either of McQueen’s other features (I know – what cinephile hasn’t seen Shame?), so I came in having no idea what to expect from him. What he delivered was an amazingly real, thematic masterpiece with good characters and almost perfect pacing. This one had me so focused that I forgot where I parked my car (the theater at which I saw it is small and located in the center of a hip-party scene. Parking choices are expensive paid lots or free side streets, if you can find a spot and are willing to walk a bit. I chose the streets). I wandered around the theater’s neighborhood for near thirty minutes, before I finally figured out where my car was. Movies don’t often affect me that much.

      (Hopefully I haven’t now overhyped it too much.)

  3. Now THIS is the film that’s at the top of my list to see right now. Can’t wait to take it in and so glad you found it to be a visceral experience of sorts.

    • I have a feeling you’ll love it. There are a handful of folks who think the theme less powerful than I do, but obviously most critics have called this a masterpiece.

      Has a very good shot at winning a slew of awards.

  4. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is the essence of the picture. With his expressive eyes and quiet demeanor, he single-handedly commands our attention even amongst more flashy characterizations from his fellow actors. It’s a role that is subtle in its patience.

  5. Pingback: Blue is the Warmest Color | digitalshortbread

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