’12 Years a Slave’ Review

Published 9 months ago by , Updated November 1st, 2013 at 6:05 pm,

12 years slave movie review 12 Years a Slave Review

12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man and professional violinist from New York who, in 1841, gratefully accepted an offer of employment from two men, claiming to be fellow artists and members of a traveling circus. The morning after a night of fine dining and wining with the pair, Solomon awoke to a nightmare – discovering that he had been deceived, drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Unable to find any free person who might listen to his protests – or brave enough to risk their own safety by aiding him – Solomon experienced humiliation, physical brutality and even unexpected kindness, before he became the property of Mr. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a slave owner who prided himself on his ability to break the spirit of any rebellious servant on his plantation. However, even when faced with such insurmountable horror, a soul as strong and dignified as Solomon’s could not be shattered.

12 years slave ejiofor fassbender 12 Years a Slave Review

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in ’12 Years a Slave’

Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) and scripted by John Ridley (Red Tails), 12 Years a Slave is a well-crafted film that uses the topic of slavery in the pre-Civil War U.S. as a means for ruminating on the human condition. However, it fails to make a clear-cut statement about the slavery issue or provide new insight on that dark chapter in American history. And thus, because the film doesn’t blink an eye – when it comes to portraying the cruelty/violence committed against blacks in the Antebellum South – there are times when it feels like (put bluntly) the equivalent of “torture porn” made for arthouse moviegoers.

In the past, McQueen has also used larger subjects (the IRA Hunger Strike, modern sex disorders) to explore how what a person does and/or what others do to a person’s body affects their spirit. That question is again his true focus with 12 Years a Slave, but the decision to use Solomon Northup’s tale as a way to further explore the issue proves less effective at best, highly questionable at worst. As a result, the scenes that depict the dehumanizing nature of slavery are genuinely disturbing to watch, yet the film as a whole fails to offer the kind of personal and informative character study that would’ve made all the suffering portrayed more meaningful (from a discussion standpoint).

12 years slave cumberbatch ejiofor 12 Years a Slave Review

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in ’12 Years a Slave’

Rest assured, 12 Years a Slave is as gorgeously shot and visually-composed as McQueen’s past films; his frequent cinematographer Sean Bobbitt photographs the 19th-century South as a sweltering hell – characterized by fiery sunsets, treacherous bogs and sparse cotton fields – populated by Solomon, other slaves and their oppressors. Meanwhile, the editing choices made by McQueen and his trusted editor, Joe Walker, favor subtly when it comes to spacing out shots and/or scenes that parallel one another (for thematic effect). Similarly, much of Hans Zimmer’s score is quiet and gentle – save for an early sequence (where Solomon is transported South by ferry), when the score becomes as over-the-top ominous as would befit a horror movie.

Indeed, 12 Years a Slave often unfolds as a historical horror show, as Solomon encounters many a monstrous Southerner who is all too eager to hurt, rape and/or murder any black person that crosses their path. Problem is, Ridley’s screenplay paints the story of Solomon Northup in overly broad strokes and fails to bring much depth to either the heroes, victims or villains. The end result is a narrative that skips too quickly through instances that offer complex insight; and, on occasion, almost seems to relish the moments that show the different slaves getting beaten, raped, flayed and hung (hence the “torture porn” label).

12 years slave fassbender ejiofor nyongo 12 Years a Slave Review

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in ’12 Years a Slave’

Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon is graceful and sympathetic, yet is undercut because the character is too thinly-written. No doubt, everyone who goes to see the film will cheer for Solomon to escape and reunite with his family, but Ridley’s script fails to dig beneath his surface – as a human being and artist – and reveal who he truly is, as a real person (not just a figure to be idolized). Similarly, Fassbender brings a steely gaze and unhinged gusto to the role of Mr. Epps, yet the antagonist – a malevolent scoundrel who loves to torture his slaves and lusts for his hardest-working servant, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) – is not written as being much deeper than your average Disney movie villain.

Several of the film’s most promising scenes involve the reputable supporting cast – Paul Giamatti as a slave auctioneer, Benedict Cumberbatch as Solomon’s first master, Paul Dano as an especially-punchable slave foreman and Garret Dillahunt as a heavy drinker forced to work alongside the slaves he once ruled over – but their flimsy characterizations and the script’s lack of payoff make their screen time feel a bit like afterthoughts (not helpful additions to the central battle of wills between Ejiofor and Fassbender).

12 years slave paulson nyongo 12 Years a Slave Review

Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o in ’12 Years a Slave’

Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s wife, Alfre Woodard as a well-cared-for slave mistress and Nyong’o as the abused Patsey are just never given the chance to fully explore how women in their positions might have behaved – and, more importantly, why they act the way they do – in spite of sincere performances from all three actresses (especially Nyong’o). Finally, many a recognizable face pops ups for a scene or cameo, including Scoot McNairy (Argo), Quvenzhané Wallis (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire) and Brad Pitt as a progressive-minded Canadian; with the exception of Pitt, though, these roles aren’t really worthy of the talent behind them.

12 Years a Slave avoids feeling like cheap exploitation, but Ridley’s script reduces the evils of slavery to a concept that isn’t challenging and lets viewers disconnect from the atrocities portrayed onscreen, without having to ask themselves the really hard questions (like “Could I have behaved like that, if I’d been alive back then?”). McQueen’s storytelling approach is more accessible here than with his previous films, yet it’s also too removed and is partly to blame for making the viewing experience a punishing, yet ultimately hollow one.

In the end, it’s best to approach 12 Years a Slave with the expectation that you are going to watch a well-made meditation about a man who endures a terrifying journey (right out of a Franz Kafka novel) – not a film that really adds so much to the ongoing conversation about slavery.

For those who are still undecided, here is the trailer for 12 Years a Slave:

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12 Years a Slave is now playing in a limited theatrical release in the U.S., but will continue to expand nationwide over the forthcoming weeks. It is 134 minutes long and Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5
(Good)

TAGS: 12 years a slave

95 Comments

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  1. I’m surprised like everybody else, a 3 out of 5 for this. That’s about the worst score I’ve seen for “12 Years a Slave”, you’re a pretty bold film reviewer, i’ll give you that.

  2. So it lost points because it wasn’t the slavery film YOU thought it should be?

    • hahah..right?

  3. I know 3 out of 5 is not a terrible review overall but in my opinion it is for this film. This was a fantastic film in every way to me. I don’t know what this critic was looking for or didn’t see in this film, but it’s a very emotional, powerful and superb film.

  4. I seen this today and was floored by how well made this film is. There are scenes that are hard to watch because of the emotion and realism depicted, but regardless this is one of the best I have seen this year. I give it a 5/5.

  5. another great movie not rated right. atleast a 4/5. no worries, SR, I still love the site, cuz usually the reviews explains why you rate em low. in this case, i guess you wanted something more that what the title says. *shrugs*

  6. ["However, it fails to make a clear-cut statement about the slavery issue or provide new insight on that dark chapter in American history."]

    I’m a little confused about this statement. Exactly what kind of statement were you expecting?

    As for me, I feel that “12 YEARS A SLAVE” is a very good film with some flaws. I do feel that it provided a good deal of insight into the slavery. But there were other aspects in the film that struck me as flawed.

  7. Ya I just saw this today, and I am very confused about this review. I could understand criticisms that the movie feels sequential and doesn’t have much of an overall structure or message. But McQueen’s movies are always moreso experiences rather than narratives. In that sense, the movie is simply trying to immerse the viewer in the hopelessness that you would feel as a slave. You wouldn’t feel as though it were all building to something, as if each person was playing a part in a story, just that you were being beaten down every day with no chance of freedom. Thus, the “torture porn” scenes (a misleading name, since they rarely ever show the actual injury, as in the scene where Solomon must whip Patsy, and generally the camera stays on Solomon) are essential to conveying that overall feeling. And each supporting character is presented as fully human, if not given an arc or backstory. There are flickers in Fassbender’s eyes, just every so often, that show that he is a human being, capable of affection in his own twisted way. I honestly just really don’t understand this review. I don’t get how this could get a 3, and Man of Steel could get a 4, and I liked MoS. I think this movie is an essential piece of American historical cinema, and I would give it a 9/10

    • @Deerektorr – I agree, if you’re looking for a message as an easy way out or an answer to ths solution which this reviewer foolishly seems to be doing, than you’re watching the wrong picture. Outside of Salomon re-uniting with his family, this film will not leave you joyous and happy, it will not solve frustrating issues that pisses you off, but what it will do is immerse you in a powerful movie going experience. There wasn’t an overall structure or message because this film wasn’t about that, it was about a guy who was an ordinary working family man who had his life stolen from him and was forced to be a slave and suffer for 12 years, but endue, persevere and never give up on life. He just made the most of a pathetic life he was unwillingly forced into that no man or woman should ever had to experience, this film tuly puts te viewer into is frame of mind and immerses you into his world. It made me think how would I have gotten through this situation.

  8. This is the same guy that says Parkland is the worst movie of the year at 1 and a 1/2 stars and now this. Lesson = Stay away from Sandy’s reviews.

  9. Was a good film, but people seem to forget the Irish slave times in 1625.

  10. Man, Can we get a “Do-Over” on this review please? After seeing this movie three times in the theater I am upset by the 3 star review. I’m sure there are other reviewers working for this site who saw this movie and find this one laughable. -I hope 12 Years a Slave wins an Oscar this year.

    • @cronotronicdextra -After reading this review and seeing that none of these so called critics on tis site even had “12 Years a Slave” on their best films of the year list, I’m convinced these guys absolutely don’t get it lol. They’re definitely in the minority, it’s just kind of strange that none of the several critics on this site even acknowledged the film, it’s too fine a film for that kind of amateurish reaction in my opinion, but oh well.

      • In the beginning of our Top 5 Favorite Movies of 2013, Ben clearly stated that “each year we present our individual Top 5 “Favorite” (not necessarily “Best”) movie offerings.” Indeed, if you listen to the SRU Podcast, there was recently an episode where 12 Years a Slave was listed as a best of the year choice by Kofi.

        Furthermore, you don’t find it at all self-serving to argue that if someone doesn’t love a film that means they “absolutely don’t get it?” As opposed to, maybe they just take issue with how the subject matter is presented?

        • @Sandy Schaefer – That’s exactly the point I was making about your review of “12 Years a Slave”, it seemed to be more on your distaste of the subject matter as opposed to your distaste of the quality of the film. It’s certainly not an easy film to watch because of tough, tense and hateful moments in the film, but just like ‘Schindler’s List” that doesn’t stop it from being a great film. I haven’t seen the podcast so I can’t comment on that, so there are probably was some things your site said I didn’t know about. Self serving not really, the vibe I got is that you maybe let the stressful scenes in the film get in the way of you’re review a little bit, if that’s not the case than my apologies. I’ll give you much respect for stepping up and responding, it’s much appreciated. Personally I loved the film and I would certainly not imply that you or anyone else should love it as well, I just thought that you reviewed the film more on the troubling content than the overall quality of it, and again if I misunderstood you than my apologies.

  11. Please give my review of 12 Years a Slave a read…http://teddyloxley.wordpress.com/2014/01/14/12-years-a-slave/

  12. to be honest i don’t think the film should be pro or anti slavery it should just tell the story line in the way it was viewed at the time and pre civil war america very few cared about the plight of slaves. in the southern states slavery was a fact of life and most people ether where indifferent and many people thought it normal.

    the brutality is will be disturbing half the time there was no meaning behind thrashing and beatings other than to make the other toe the line. having people every ten minuets talking about the evils of slavery detracts from the topic of slavery as you are putting a 21st century slant on the past that warps it.

    brutality was a common thing to slaves and in the south there where very few members of the population who cared. that is what you should see not a sensitized version of the past, or a completely fictitious film essay like Roots where its made up to prove a point, in the end it is better to give historical veiw of the past.

  13. Great Review. I agree with what you said about how the film does not make one think more hard about slavery however, I’m not sure this was the goal. The goal was probably most to make money off a great book and to help Mcqueen make a better name for himself. I watched shame and loved it and I think Mcqueen is a great director. I did not like how Brad Pitt played the abolitionist but it was a still a great movie. They skipped a lot of things in the book that where important but there was not enough time. I know that living in today’s society I will never have an idea of what it was like to be a slave. However, there is a lot of racism here in United States and this movie reminds society of the atrocities that occured 150 years ago. Nothing has changed in the last 150 years of people brains and how they work. Sure we have knew laws but that slavery could easily be occuring today in united States. This movie makes me appreciate black people more and respect them. It just reminds you how much Blacks suffered despite the fact that some people don’t like them because they are black, slavery and racism is never justified. The movie showed how wrong racism and slavery was and just how hypocritical whites where in the 1850s and could easily still be today.

  14. This film was only recently released in Europe. I am surprised by your relatively negative review. This is splendid cinematography and already a classic in its own right. Throughout performances by the actors are second to none. A great movie that gives you a lot to think about.

  15. Although the material is worthwhile, I don’t think it was executed that well. The passage of time wasn’t obvious to me, the film editing had scenes which went on too long. Hans Zimmer’s scoring was minimal (films with not much scoring do work and I could offer many examples) but a little more in certain places would have helped convey emotion and even the passage of time. Some of the dialogue was hard to make out, particularly the Southern accents of some of the white men. Give me Roots anytime!

  16. Great review, Sandy! I see where you’re coming from about the script failures.We all hope for a happy ending, but in reality, it doesn’t always happen. I apologize if I’m being too much of a realist, but Solomon had been gone from his family for twelve years. Twelve years! I can’t imagine what his wife and children had gone through during that time, just never knowing what happened to him. I’m sure a million things were running through their heads. This ending was wonderful, but was it too perfect?

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