Review: 12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen)

Often difficult to watch but always captivating, 12 Years a Slave is unrestrained in its depiction of the brutality of slavery in pre-Civil War United States.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga, N.Y., with his wife and two children. On a trip to Washington – Northup is a talented violinist who is promised a two-week engagement with a travelling show – he is tricked, drugged, kidnapped and eventually sold into slavery. He wakes up in shackles; he pleads with his captors, but it’s no use. Soon after, he’s on a boat heading south to Louisiana where he’s not so much given a new identity as one is imposed on him by his abductors. He resists, to no avail.

Northup is now Platt, a slave who, over the next 12 years, will be sold to three different “owners:” from awful (Paul Giamatti) to slightly less awful (Benedict Cumberbatch) “under the circumstances,” Northup says, to the absolute worst (Michael Fassbender, his third film with director Steve McQueen). Platt is advised by another slave that, unlike Northup, Platt should not be able to read or write and should forget about Northup and his life in Saratoga entirely if he wants to survive. “I don’t want to survive,” Northup says. “I want to live.” It’s 1841 and while slavery is illegal in some northeastern states, like Northup’s home state of New York, it’s still very much legal and practised in many southern states. Even there, though, the enslavement of a free man is illegal.

Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is referred to as a “slave breaker,” but his wife (Sarah Paulson) gives him a run for his money. She throws a glass at the face of Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), Epps’s “star” slave – she picks more than 500 pounds of cotton a day – whom she suspects has seduced her husband.

Based on the incredible true story and the memoirs of the same name, 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing piece of filmmaking. It’s McQueen’s most accessible film, or at least his film with the most accessible subject matter. There are unnervingly and unexpectedly long shots; after he dares talk back to a white groundskeeper, Northup is tied up to a tree and left there. The camera pans and reveals children running around and other slaves going about their day. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley mean to normalize this kind of torture rather than sensationalize or shock. Even Hans Zimmer’s score never feels overwhelming.

Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who also worked on McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, deserves praise for beautifully capturing every scene but retaining their horror. 12 Years features some of the most effective close-ups I’ve ever seen.

The film is bolstered by amazing performances across the board – kudos to casting director Francine Maisler: Ejiofor inspires as Northup, a man who never breaks and whose strength is inspiring; Paulson is an ice queen, relentless in her cruelty; Fassbender is unhinged; Giamatti and Cumberbatch are effective, as are Paul Dano and Brat Pitt, who have small roles in the film. But it’s really Lupita Nyong’o, in her first feature film as Epps’s slave Patsey, who will send shivers up and down your spine in every frame in which she appears. Her every move and stare are perfect.

Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years a Slave
Lupita Nyong’o in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.

Patsey is born into slavery; she’s quiet – almost silent, really – and complacent. The first time we hear her speak is when she asks Northup, whom she’s grown to trust, for a favour. It’s a heartbreaking and gut-wrenching exchange that sets up the relationship they will have on Epps’s property where much of the film’s second half takes place. The Oscar buzz surrounding 12 Years a Slave has been deafening since it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and with good reason. Nyong’o’s performance may just be the greatest debut of all time.

McQueen must be commended for being able to tell Northup’s tale without getting melodramatic. It’s graphic but not gratuitous, inspiring but not dishonest. McQueen, a Brit, is holding up a mirror to the true American horror story that is slavery.

12 Years a Slave gets a wide release Friday, Nov. 8. 

Additional reading

Levar Burton on 12 Years a Slave, 36 years after Roots

Where are the serious movies about non-suffering black people?

12 Years a Slave teaches Tarantino a history lesson

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