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12 Years a Slave – Movie Review

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12 Years a Slave – Movie Review

Rating: B+ (Very Good)

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It takes a lot of skill to take a very serious subject matter, show the brutality of the situation and not make it seem gratuitous and done for the sake of being shocking. Thankfully, director Steve McQueen manages to go deep into the problems African American slaves had to face and though the result is an uncomfortable sight to watch, he walks that careful line. 12 Years a Slave is a brutal film that is unflinching in its portrait of that time period and McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley keep it realistic. The scars come from how real he makes the story and its on-screen harshness.

The circumstances under which Solomon Northup was kidnapped into slavery is already horrifying enough and McQueen lingers on that. This is a film that will be difficult to watch, without thinking how the human race could even commit such acts to fellow people. What makes Solomon particularly complex is how he is an intelligent man forced to stay quiet and keep his opinions to himself and try to serve people obviously below him. That is just as painful as the whiplashes and nooses. Chiwetel Ejiofor brings a necessary subtlety to the role, showing every little nuance and perfectly acting with his eyes. He displays the right emotion with Solomon and that makes his journey even more brutal and painful to watch. The way McQueen lingers on certain shots is also key to this. In one scene that runs close to a minute, without cutting, he is shown hanging from a noose as his chocking fills the soundtrack. It is very hard to watch and Ejiofor is a major component of that.

Ridley’s screenplay does not paint the various slave owners and traders in one-dimensional lights and while some are certainly horrible to the core, they are hardly twirling their moustaches. Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of a particularly brutal slave owner is quite scary, showing that real-life villains can definitely be more frightening than fictional ones. He approaches the part of Edwin Epps with such a ferocity, one wonders if the rest of the cast and crew felt comfortable sitting next to him at lunch. At every moment, he could throw a tantrum and that uncertainty makes Fassbender’s scenes all the more on edge. The watchful eye of Sarah Paulson’s creepy performance as his wife, adds another level of unease to the scenes, created even further when they are on-screen together. Paul Dano is equally sadistic with his character and manages the impressive task of being immediately unlikeable and despicable after a single second of screen time. Meanwhile, Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who seems more like a used car salesman than somebody selling people.

12 Years a Slave also asks some interesting questions about whether having one lack of judgment ultimately disregards how good somebody is. Benedict Cumberbatch’s plantation owner is a good person with a massive amount of respect for Solomon and tries his best to give his slaves a comfortable life. However, he still owns slaves with no intention of seemingly giving up that part of his life. In one very sad scene, he has to make the uncomfortable choice of splitting a mother from her daughter. In a strange way, the audience is meant to sympathise with a man buying slaves to work without pay on his estate. This is a example of how Ridley intelligently doesn’t portray every character in basic terms. Even the friendly carpenter Solomon confines in is portrayed as nervous in trying to help this man return to his family. In a time period filled with horrible people, even the more moral of them have major flaws in how they make their life decisions.

While the screenplay is smart and the direction is solid with some stunning cinematography, 12 Years a Slave does occasionally drag in spots. For every scene that pulled me in, there was maybe another that seemed to take its time to get to the point. While this worked for some scenes in conveying the brutality of the time, editor Joe Walker could have snipped here and there to improve some of the pacing, as the film feels like its length. The use of Brad Pitt, in a small role as a Canadian carpenter, also proves a distraction. While everybody else in this impressive ensemble fits perfectly into their roles, it’s difficult not to see Pitt in what basically seems like a thank you from Steve McQueen for producing the film.

Like a lot of historical dramas released near the end of the year, 12 Years a Slave tackles an important subject matter and a period we thankfully won’t repeat. McQueen doesn’t flinch in how he shows the horrors that were inflicted on slaves before the Civil War. The fact that there were those who actually kidnapped free people to place into slavery is already shocking enough, but McQueen does not rely on shock value to create a strong film. He allows the audience to be emotionally invested in Solomon Northup’s story and that makes the abuse he suffers all the more disturbing to watch. 12 Years a Slave is not a film you should watch to feel good, but it works in conveying the necessary pain and horror at what happened to this man and the other slaves of that time period.

Review By: Stefan Ellison


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