Film Review: 12 Years A Slave

An artful triumph by director Steve McQueen and the most unforgiving account of slavery to date, led by brilliant and physically demanding performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender.

There is a certain perception that settles into one’s consciousness upon seeing “based on a true story” on the screen at the start of a film. Inevitably, knowing what you’re about to see really took place at some point in time will alter your viewing experience. Especially when the events are tied to a horrific slice of history (such as the Holocaust or slavery) whose damage on society still carries discernible evidence that reflects upon our contemporary existence.

Thus, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which tells the true story of Solomon Northup—a freeborn family man from Saratoga Springs, New York—as he is kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery to Louisiana, already inflicts a substantial emotional dread, even on paper. Yet watching this film adapted from Northup’s 1853 memoir by John Ridley proves to be an encounter like no other. Harrowing, raw and unapologetic, 12 Years a Slave is the most unforgiving and crucial account of this horrific era that I have witnessed onscreen.

Surely, this segment of American history has been depicted in popular cinema a number of times before, with two mainstream titles being examples in recent memory. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained is still fresh in our minds as a gruesome revenge fantasy. Spielberg’s masterful Lincoln was also released just last year and has been thematically compared to his Amistad, since both envelop a procedural story structure set in the same era. However, McQueen’s film isn’t necessarily a companion to any of these titles due to one simple fact: Before any wrongs can be righted—as Django Unchained, Lincoln and Amistad all focus on the redeeming process of making it right in historical or fantastical fashions—one man has to spend exactly 12 years in bondage, enduring a most unimaginable cruelty where he goes from being a human being to someone’s owned possession overnight.

And make no mistake; McQueen isn’t about to make it easy for you to stomach any of it. As he dials up the cruelty he allows onscreen gradually with very necessary images that don’t leave any room for sugar-coating historical facts, his unflinching eye toward telling stories of physical suffering and emotional endurance (which he displayed with his earlier films Hunger and Shame) is once again at work here while the camera fixates on every detail to brutal effect. This signature visual aesthetic, in his third collaboration with director of photography Sean Bobbitt, raises 12 Years a Slave to a level of immediacy and essentiality; and it is perhaps the reason the film has been called the Schindler’s List of slavery movies by many (including me).

Huge credit belongs to the extraordinary cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Northup, renamed Platt Hamilton during his trade) in invoking this level of urgency. Ejiofor’s face, especially in the film’s triumphant finale, is a study of emotional and physical exhaustion, with his “motivation to exist” transforming from surviving to living throughout his enslavement, as he changes hands among a number of slave owners played by Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender. The always-brilliant Fassbender’s corporeal portrayal of Edwin Epps—the most malicious of Northup’s owners—not only paints a shocking image of a sadistic man (which, at times, you wish to un-see), but also a mindset where crimes like his were normalized and committed for enjoyment.

Perhaps the most unforgettable moments are delivered during a climactic scene between Epps, Platt and Patsey (played by the excellent newcomer Lupita Nyong’o)—a beautiful slave whom Epps both rages upon and desires—in which Platt is ordered to whip Patsey and forced to abandon the dignity he strives to maintain even as a dehumanized object of this mindset.

One would expect Hans Zimmer’s often-bombastic musical sensibilities to overshadow the integrity of McQueen’s work, yet his score proves to be an effective and crucial ingredient to the story’s dramatic arc—which touches impenitent and emotional ends—when coupled with songs sung by the slaves.

12 Years a Slave
is a landmark film, complete with a terrific ensemble (Paul Dano, Sara Paulson and Brad Pitt need to be mentioned in certain key roles), and the vision and skill required to do justice to such historically complex material. It is one of those rare pieces of art that all its successors taking a shot at the same topic will be measured against.