People, Property, Propriety and Evil in 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave 2

Steve McQueen’s searing cinematic treatise on slavery will never be accused of holding back.  Classically the film opens in medias res showing small moments in the life of a man enslaved that lead him to flashing back to an idyllic moment with his wife when he had been a free man.  McQueen’s confident direction and John Ridley’s assured screenplay move cleanly back and forth in time to tell the harrowing story of Solomon Northup (an amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor), an accomplished violinist from Saratoga, NY with a loving wife and children who is lured to the nation’s capital on the promise of work only to get kidnapped into slavery.  The horrors, violence and depravity slowly escalate during the film’s runtime, with McQueen transmitting the details through clever points-of-view and camera angles, focusing on the screams and faces of the victims until by the end of the film all blood and flesh are left pooling on the dusty ground of the plantation hellscape run with diabolical vigor by Master Epps (a blisteringly despicable Michael Fassbender, stretching his acting muscle yet again to its darkest reaches under McQueen’s insightful and uncompromising eye).

12 Years a Slave is simultaneously a harrowing one-man-survival-tale and a bitter pill of a history lesson that reminds us it wasn’t so long ago that an entire culture in the Southern United States believed with all their rotten hearts that it was their right to hold other human beings as property.  The institutionalized evil has left a still stubborn scab on the nation.  One has to wonder what scenes and characters are straight from Northup’s memoir and what has been fabricated by Ridley, as the script seems almost too perfect in its parade of characters and events showcasing every possible type of player in the drama, every type of slave owner and slave as Northrop endures over a decade between two plantations in Louisiana, whose moss-strewn swamps have never been photographed more hauntingly by Sean Bobbitt.

Hans Zimmer’s score is possibly his most versatile and triumphant work to date even topping perhaps his immersive and thematically tailored masterwork for Inception.  Yes, there are some of his signature, almost romantic, but melancholic swells, but when Northup is first hauled onto a riverboat after being kidnapped, the music becomes jarringly discordant to match the camera work focused on the churning wheels and flowing water taking our hero into the netherworld and the screenplay focused on Northup’s internal anger, confusion and desperation.  Likewise at other key moments, Zimmer works his musical magic, tailoring his notes to both the external and internal, thematically linking pieces of the narrative like a classical musician composing an opera.

This is one of those rare films where everyone, yes everyone, gives an award-caliber performance and is gifted a moment by McQueen and Ridley.  Paul Giamatti briefly appears as a trader who might as well be the devil himself, as his stately “buy a slave and have a drink or enjoy a tune” operation inside a smartly furnished home is unlike anything we’ve ever seen in a slave narrative – a true shock and an important reminder of the casualness and decorum that can sometimes accompany pure evil.  His screen time is unforgettable, as are over a dozen other moments and performances from Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps, a vile woman who chides her equally vile husband in ways that could make anyone’s blood run cold…to Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey, whose epic pleading with Northup to take her life is like a knife to the heart…to Paul Dano’s brief appearance as a spiteful pissant of an overseer who you just wish Daniel Plainview would come and beat the life out of with a bowling pin.  These performances form a sturdy mosaic along with McQueen’s imagery from the moodily lit Louisiana swamps to the lashes on someone’s back to a letter burning in the darkness, whose last flickering embers symbolize the last flickers of hope.

Of course, the film wouldn’t exist if Northup didn’t survive.  12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to sit through and its runtime and content sometimes feels a burden…but it is absolutely essential.

Written by David H. Schleicher


From across the blogosphere, catch the buzz:

  • Jason Marshall tackles many things regarding the film over at Movies Over Matter
  • Over at Fade Out, they point out nothing is what it seems in McQueen’s film.
  • Mixed feelings and artistic choices are discussed at The Bad and the Beautiful.
  • At Ripple Effects the film’s balance of fine art and harsh realism weigh heavy on the discourse.


  1. A heartfelt review, brilliantly worded.

    I’m glad movies like this get made on a subject so sensitive, handled equally sensitively, humanely and within the historical context. Specially when compared to more voyeuristic (sadistic even) takes on the subject like Tarantino’s Django Unchained.

    • Prakash – while I certainly had my problems with Django…in a weird way, I think that film’s success has perhaps paved the way for a wider audience to accept, digest and learn from McQueen’s film. Tarantino’s flick was some bizarre, willfully bonkers sadistic revenge fantasy…while McQueen’s film is THE TRUTH. I don’t think audiences would be as willing to sober up with 12 Years a Slave if they first hadn’t become drunk on Django. Tarantino tried to desensitize us while McQueen sensitized us once again.

  2. An excellent, thorough and in-depth review! And you’ve chosen the word well, ‘burden’ (albeit not so much for me though…) That’s why I totally disagree with criticisms saying the film is too ‘pristine’ and ‘sanitized’. Simply ludicrous. You’re right about this true story ‘is absolutely essential’ to be told. McQueen has mentioned in an interview that Solomon Northup’s book ought to be in a school curriculum, along with Anne Frank’s Diary. BTW, sorry to learn that All Is Lost made you thirsty. 😉

    • Arti – Sometimes people just need to complain about something…so you have the critics who feel it’s too brutal vs. those who think it’s too beautifully shot. I think your review correctly argued that a film can be brutal and beautiful…as most great art commenting on life is.

      I would have to agree with McQueen about school curriculums.

      Ha Ha! re: All is Lost. I’m STILL thirsty!

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