Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Violence/Cruelty, Some Nudity and Brief Sexuality
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
(based on the book 12 YEARS A SLAVE by Solomon Northup)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garrett Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’O, Sarah Paulson & Brad Pitt
It’s so easy to overlook the past and pretend that atrocities didn’t happen. Some people say that slavery has been overdone in films, but those who don’t learn from the history are doomed to repeat it. Slavery was an abomination and it sickens me to no end to think that it occurred less than two centuries ago. This was a dark, scary piece of American history. This was a period of time where certain people weren’t considered to be human, based solely on the color of their skin. To make matters even worse, no one was safe from this horrible crime against humanity. It gave cruel plantation owners an excuse to be dehumanize others. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is an unflinching, disturbingly realistic film that is based on a true story that took place before the Civil War, when slavery was at its peak.
Solomon Northup is a free black man living in upstate New York. Upon meeting some gentlemen, Solomon agrees to travel with them in the hopes of making some extra cash to support his family (a wife, a son, and a daughter). It is in Washington, D.C. that Solomon is deceived. Waking up in chains, Solomon has been kidnapped and sold into slavery. Given a new name and a fake past, Solomon does what he must to endure and survive this terrible ordeal. With prejudice and potential death lurking around every corner, Solomon serves 12 years that are split between two very different plantations. One is run by a Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbach from STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS), while the other is run by a cruel drunk of a man (played by Michael Fassbender) and his equally cruel wife (played by Sarah Paulson).
12 YEARS A SLAVE wisely shows roughly two title cards explaining what the time and place is. This decision pretty much throws us into the disoriented world with Solomon as he struggles to find some footing and retain some of his dignity, along with his life. Early on in the movie, a fellow slave says to Solomon that if he wants to survive, he should try not to stand out. Later on, resigning to his current predicament, Solomon tells a grieving mother (separated from her children) that he doesn’t want to survive, he wants to live. Determined not to let grief and despair get the best of him, Solomon does what he is asked and also finds the courage to stand up when something completely unfair is occurring.
The production values of the movie are top-notch and the A-list names add even more talent to display. This is Michael Fassbender’s most frightening performance and Benedict Cumberbatch is a marvel as a slave-owner with a touch of kindness. Paul Dano is despicable as an obnoxious carpenter, using the idea of slavery to further his own power-hungry ego. Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt aren’t in the movie for too long, but when they are they stand out as characters unlike any they’ve played before.
The real show-stopper is the relatively unknown Chiwetel Ejiofor (who has been in many other films, but isn’t a standout face). It was a smart move for director Steve McQueen (who also directed SHAME and HUNGER) to cast an unfamiliar face in the role of Solomon Northup. If it had been a blockbuster actor like Will Smith, things could have easily gone downhill and become cheesy. Ejiofor gives a performance that feels real and being thrown into his position, we genuinely feel for his actions and understand his motivation to keep moving on and his fear to disclose his true identity to anyone, for fear of repercussions. We never leave Solomon’s side at any point in the movie. This is the struggle of one man through a dark period of inhumane history.
The film is hard to watch and brutally real, but the experience is a rewarding one. It’s a history lesson that bears repeating over and over. Steve McQueen is not afraid to transport us back to the dark times of slavery and never once does he restrain from any of the honest tragedy of the entire situation. It’s unflinching, heartbreaking, and incredibly moving. Expect to emotional for a long time after the credits have rolled. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is a modern classic, if there ever was one.