12 Years a Slave (2013)
written by John Ridley
based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
directed by Steve McQueen
Based on the real experiences of Solomon Northup, a free black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, 12 Years a Slave is not your typical Hollywood based-on-a-true-story bullshit. Kudos to director Steve MacQueen (2011’s Shame) for not turning away from the more lurid and shameful aspects of this period in American history. I can count at least three times in which I grimaced in disgust – for a film to elicit such a gut reaction in me, it must be doing something well.
However, 12 Years a Slave fails somewhat in other crucial areas. The lead performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor is a bit distant and tentative, and I never felt fully immersed in his twelve-year ordeal to regain his freedom. I also found some of the other characters to be too simplistic, from Paul Dano’s over-the-top abusive slaver, to Brad Pitt’s cameo as a righteous carpenter who proclaims to plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) that slavery is just plain wrong. No shit. And then there’s the obvious, manipulative Hans Zimmer score: Requisite string motif for plaintive, sad sequences, and dissonant brass attack for violence and suspense. Subtlety goes a long way.
Make no mistake, 12 Years a Slave is still essential viewing, if only for the brave, no-holds-barred turn by Lupita Nyong’o as a slave named Patsey. The moment where she pleads Epps not to whip her for having left the plantation so she could get a bar of soap is as harrowing, human, and honest as I’ve seen in a very long time. She walks away with the film… and with our hearts.
Carlos I. Cuevas
For me this film had an ever present sense of oppression that was palpable and unrelenting. By the end of the movie, I was just stressed and overwhelmed to the point of sobbing.
I disagree on Chitwell. I was with him the entire time. I think his detachment was a survival tool and very deliberate. But there are moments where it breaks and he can’t contain it. One scene I found moving, unsurprisingly, is the moment when he’s just silently among a bunch of people singing a spiritual and is slowly moved into singing along.
My only real complaint was that one lady who cried a lot. She was totally unconvincing to me and her scenes took me out of it.