A film review by Craig J. Koban November 15, 2013

RANK:  #4


2013, R, 133  mins.


Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup  /  Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps  /  Michael Kenneth Williams as John Tibeats  /  Paul Dano as John Tibeats  /  Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford  /  Garret Dillahunt as Armsby  /  Ruth Negga as Celeste  /  Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps  /  Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman  /  Brad Pitt as Bass  /  Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw

Directed by Steve McQueen  /  Written by John Ridley and McQueen

Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE is one of those once in a blue moon historical films that hits viewers hard with a stark and unflinching impact and veracity.  

Kind of akin to SCHINDLER’S LIST, the film explores a dreadful human injustice and sin, in its case American slavery, and like Spielberg’s film 12 YEARS A SLAVE is unrelenting in how in grounds us in the inherent barbarism of its shameful subject matter.  There have been many movies and TV shows that have explored slavery, to be sure, but very few have achieved McQueen’s startling you are there sense of immediacy.  As a result, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is not only unforgettably difficult to endure at times, but it also is incredibly moving and heartrending at the same time.  At its core, it’s a damning indictment about how easy it was during the mid-19th Century for one poor soul’s life to be literally taken away from him. 

The film is based on the 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup, who was a free black man and musician that lived in Washington, D.C. in 1841, that is until he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Deep South.  Northup ended up, as nightmarish as it seems, working on Louisiana plantations for a dozen years before he was ultimately rescued and released.  If there were a common thread to all of McQueen’s films – including this one – then it would be the way they explore the dark underbelly of the flawed and fragile human condition.  His brilliant 2008 film HUNGER explored IRA prisoners starving themselves to death as a form of solidarity and protest.  His follow-up, 2011’s SHAME, dealt with one pathetic and depraved man’s unstoppable sex addiction.  In 12 YEARS A SLAVE McQueen not only delves deep into the sheer injustice and atrocity of Northup’s situation, but he also taps into the deranged mindsets of those that kept him in bondage.  In the process, McQueen makes a film of deep humanity and inhumanity. 



The film opens in 1841 when Northup (a toweringly powerful Chiwetel Ejiofor; more on him in a bit) is living the free life as a violin player in New York with his loving wife and young children.  Even though he’s a relatively cultured, verbally refined, and well off man that’s respected, Northup manages to get duped into thinking that has a lucrative job lined up in Washington.  He only later realizes that it’s all a front to sell him into slavery.  When he wakes up in a stark, cold, and barren prison cell – wrapped in chains from head to foot – the gravity of his situation hits him hard.  Northup winds up, at first, working for William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) on his plantation, and he manages to stay on relatively good terms with his new master in order to mentally keep sharp, but one of Ford’s overseers (a venomously hostile Paul Dano) resents every fiber of Northup’s race.  Even though Ford treats Northup modestly well, even his good will can’t save him from the cruelty of slave life overall. 

Eventually, Northup ends up being sold to another plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who teamed up with McQueen on his last two films), who just might be one of the most vile and reprehensible characters in a movie in a long time.  Epps is not just a racist: he’s a toxically indecent monster that’s not above raping his help while, at the same time,  ensuring that Northup and his fellow slaves are treated like cattle on a daily basis.  Hope seems nearly all but lost for Northup the more days he spends under Epp’s savage rule, but he does manage to get befriended by a Canadian carpenter that Epps has hired named Bass (Brad Pitt), who seems to be the only white man that has an inkling of interest in listening to the ordeal that Northup has been through for years.  Bass is sympathetic to Northup’s pleas for help, but he also lives in a time when helping a slave is akin to a criminal offence. 

Both HUNGER and SHAME revealed an extraordinary directorial talent in McQueen, but 12 YEARS A SLAVE all but cements him as one of the shrewdest and most daringly confident filmmakers working today.  No subject matter seems to fray him in the slightest, and he submerges himself into all of his film’s themes with an assuredness and courage that most other directors lack.  McQueen gives us a gateway here into one of the darkest legacies in American history and does so with immersive visuals, evocative cinematography and period design, and a wrenching eye for the brutal day-to-day details of Northup’s decades-plus ordeal.  Some have labeled the film as sanctimoniously violent and sensationalistic, and 12 YEARS A SLAVE is most undoubtedly graphic and will have many turn their eyes from the screen.  Yet, the film does not present violence for cheap emotional payoffs; McQueen uses it to force audience members to look at the senselessness of American slavery.  Nothing is soft-pedaled here, which is to the film’s ultimate credit. 

McQueen also has a keen knack for generating astoundingly grounded performances by his cast members, and Ejiofor has certainly given superlative performances before in films, but here he reaches a whole other high plateau of emotional rawness and verisimilitude in his portrayal of Northup.  His work is doubly strong for how he not only evokes Northup’s almost limitless reserve of inner willpower and strength, but also for how he also shows the dire anxiety, repressed anger, and overall confusion that must have beset the real Northup.  This is a performance that Oscar wins are made of, but the supporting cast around him are is stellar, especially Fassbender, who manages to so creepily tap into the psyche of the monstrous Epp with such an unnerving bravado.  Then there’s Nupita Nyong’o, giving arguably the finest performance outside of Ejiofer, playing a slave girl that deals with Epp’s constant sexual perversions.  Nyong’o’s performance is honest, pure, and so unreservedly shattering to experience. 

Amazing, 12 YEARS A SLAVE manages to have a hopeful ending without it coming off as a falsely “happy” one, as we know that, as per history, Northup was eventually released from slavery…but at what cost?  His personal story is a commendable one of bravery and salvation, as he certainly had the fortitude and will of a dozen men to survive what he experienced.  But the conclusion of the film still rightfully alludes to the fact that for every one Northup there were thousands of other African Americans that never tasted freedom in their lifetimes.  By the time I left the screening I was thoroughly drained, but that’s not to McQueen’s or the film’s detriment.  12 YEARS A SLAVE is one of those highly rare important films that should be considered essential viewing.  There are so very few films that exist these days that can be rightfully and aptly described, as a necessity to screen, but this is one of them.  It will stay with you long after you’ve seen it.     

  H O M E