Thursday, November 7, 2013

12 Years a Slave (2013) – Review

Review: 12 Years a Slave is harrowing and powerful character drama. The film is about Solomon Northup, a free black man living in 1841 Saratoga, NY, who is tricked into traveling south to Washington D.C. where he is drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. This is a true story.

There first thing that stands out about director Steve McQueen’s film is that it is unflinching in its portrayal of the conditions these unfortunate souls faced. McQueen does not exaggerate the violence or the evil for dramatic effect, rather the film is very much grounded in reality, which is probably what makes it all the more affecting.

Structurally, 12 Years a Slave feels like a grand story (similar to films such as Lawrence of Arabia or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), as it is sweeping narrative following Northup over the course of many years, in multiple locations, and engaging with a myriad of characters. And like many grand stories, this is a film about the perseverance of human spirit in the face of the shameful, vile abomination of man’s capacity to commit evil against his fellow man.

Northup has two primary owners. The first is seemingly a good man (Ford), while the second is filled with malice intent (Epps). However, what is striking about McQueen’s look at slavery is that Ford might just be the bigger villain. Epps is a crazed maniac whose own shortcomings bleed out in the form of violence towards his slaves. Ford on the other hand genuinely seems to know that slavery is wrong (on some level), and yet is complicit in it as a tool to forward his own business interests and livelihood. Epps is merely just a bad, troubled man, but Ford knows better. This is the terrifying truth that McQueen gets at: yes, there were/are evil men in this world but it is the indifference of the good that truly allows atrocity to occur.

Northup meets many characters – some good, some bad, each with a different view of life. And yet, all are to some extent apathetic towards what holding humans in bondage really means. The white slave owners to varying degrees buy into the idea that these men are of a lessor human value and thus viewing them as property is not such a reach, and the slaves themselves are for the most part subservient to their unfortunate plight. What happened to moral good, above all of man’s laws? Northup is constantly out of step, as he will just not accept his fate. Through Northup, McQueen showcases reprehensible brutality as nothing more than a social and economic system in play – each party merely enacting their part. This is what is frightening. Northup is disgusted by the abhorrence of his situation, and that perspective is translated to the audience who is completely invested in him (due to very strong character work), but to those more familiar with the situation (i.e. whites and blacks that have grown up in the system) it is just normal daily life. The whites stand supreme over their plantations, inflated by their social, political, and economic status while their slaves cower, their will long broken.

Northup is the guiding light through the fog of forgotten morals. McQueen’s film feels so realistic that the audience too seems to lose hope and simply comply with the order of this awful world, too exhausted and beaten down to fight. Only Northup stands tall. He is different. He just will not fully summit. There are a number of moments in which his situation seems lost, as he comes to fully understand just what humanity is capable of in this warped society. But, he never does give up. The film, as bleak as it may feel, is ultimately uplifting. He survives, one of the few.

Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, while a revenge fantasy, does go out of its way to explicitly detail the horrors of slavery – the cruelty, the abject character, and plain hateful nature of slave owners. It is effective in its intended conveyance. With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen is to some extent making the same film as Tarantino. He wants to comment on the capability of man to commit evil using slavery as his foil. However, as good as Django Unchained is, 12 Years a Slave is much more successful at engaging the audience on an emotional level. The film does not go for guilt (that is unreasonable at this point). It does not go for sympathy, at least from a perspective of a third party commenting on how awful it must have been. No, McQueen wants his audience to viscerally feel the anguish, the humiliation. What it is to be meaningless and truly without hope. His film is unflinching because he wants his film to not just tell a story but to be an experience (maybe to shake humanity out of its apathy). McQueen has made a film that regardless of the viewer’s background makes them feel like they are the ones in bondage (if only for a moment). It is deeply disturbing and utterly sad, but in the end hopeful that humanity can find a way back.

12 Years a Slave excels aesthetically and in all aspects of its filmmaking and performances. It is a character drama that fully pulls the audience in, infests their souls, and opens them up to the heartbreaking reality that so many faced (and continue to face in some parts of the world). Solomon Northup was amazingly lucky and also devastatingly unlucky.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Auteur Steve McQueen is among today’s most brilliant filmmakers. His films just seem to have an innate power to them, a volatile emotional connection that grabs their viewers bringing them to an impassioned climax (be it sadness, joy, anger). Hunger and Shame are fantastic works, but both exist more in the fringe of independent film (mostly unseen by average moviegoers). 12 Years a Slave is his most accessible work (in some ways it is a Hollywood prestige film), and yet it does not feel diminished in any way dramatically. McQueen keeps his edge, which is wonderfully refreshing.

Hans Zimmer’s score for the film is fully immersive. More than any other piece of film-music this year, his score interacts with the viewer on a deeply affecting emotional level. It incites a fevered erupting of emotion. While 12 Years a Slave is impressive in all aspects, Zimmer’s score seems to aspire to something more. Even without its accompanying images, it is a powerfully dynamic composition.  Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography is excellent. The film is lit mostly with natural light, Bobbitt employing candlelight in many scenes to great effect (giving the film a similar look, though darker tonally, to Stanley Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon). McQueen and Bobbitt (in their third collaboration) also use some very aggressively combative images (like the trashing wheel of the riverboat) to actively agitate the viewer in the early scenes, but later in the film they use much more peaceful transition shots (mostly of a blazing sky over the Louisiana swamp). Even in the film’s transitions and place-markers, McQueen is engaged in an emotional dialog with the audience. Adam Stockhausen’s production design is wonderful as well. The look of the film creates an overall feeling or realism, paramount to the success of the narrative. An interesting thing I noticed is that, the viewer never leaves Northup, and thus the design is focused to the areas that he inhabits. The audience almost never sees the inside of any of the great mansions that overlook the plantations (aside from a couple dance scenes, featuring cramped conditions). Northup’s world as a slave is dark, damp, and seemingly void of hope juxtaposed to the more flamboyant colors that free men often favor. Zimmer, Bobbitt, and Stockhausen each produce work that is among the year’s best in their disciplines.

As exceptional as the directing, writing, music, design, photography, and overall aesthetic composition of the film is, 12 Years a Slave is still a film built on its performances. However, it mostly features small bit parts (many great actors having only but a moment of screen time). While all the performances in the film are strong, a few of these small performances stand out. Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam play Brown and Hamilton, Northup’s initial kidnappers. They have such a joyful exuberance that it is shocking when they turn out to be bad men. They do a wonderful job of ripping the audience out of their comfort zone (which the subsequent scenes only build on). Chris Chalk and Michael K. Williams are the next to serve the role of introducing the audience and Northup to the sheer reality of his situation from very different perspectives. Adepero Oduye plays her character’s sadness with such a heartbreaking hopelessness, weighing on Northup. Paul Giamatti plays a slave salesman. His frank delivery is unnerving as he sells humans as if they were beasts. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Ford, a man who appears noble and good, but is really just a coward. Paul Dano (seemingly recapturing a little of his There Will Be Blood character’s uneasy energy) becomes Northup’s first obstacle, as he plays a man of deficiency who cannot bear to be upstaged by a slave. Sarah Paulson plays Epps’s wife. She is just as awful and hateful (again conveying the total disregard that slave owners had for their slaves). And finally, Brad Pitt plays a white man in the South unafraid to speak out against the inhumanity and moral wrongs of slavery. Lupita Nyong’o and Michael Fassbender feature in true supporting roles. Nyong’o plays Patsey, a slave who has the unwanted affection of Epps and the scorn of his wife. She is brilliant in the role. She suffers to such an extent that she only wishes for death. Fassbender plays Epps. He has such an intense energy that his mere presence is intimidating. He inflicts mental and physical fury as to keep his slaves in a constant state of dread. They wilt before him (all but Northup). He is malevolent bitterness personified, but what is great about Fassbender’s performance is that just calling him evil is too easy. There is something much deeper corrupting his soul. Chiwetel Ejiofor is a beacon of strength as Solomon Northup. To some extent, he cannot get out of his own way. He just cannot keep his head down and conform to the shadows. While the film tries its very best to emotionally break each viewer, Northup seems as though he can bear any load. He will persevere and by doing so the audience is able to emerge from the film hopeful. Ejiofor has so many wow moments in the film (form a performance standpoint), but the one that stands out for me is his finally engaging in song at the burial of a slave who collapsed while picking cotton. Everything just seems hopeless. Watching this man die from exhaustion to the complete disregard of everyone else seems like it might finally be the final straw for Northup. He looks defeated, but during the song he again finds his will, his strength.

Summary & score: 12 Years a Slave is a profound cinematic experience, piercing into the viewer’s soul. 9/10


  1. Watching this movie all I could think was how great Joaquin phoenix would have been in the role of epps. I thought Pitt was a distraction and the movie was good but seemed a little off to me.

  2. Pitt was one of the producers as well. Phoenix would have been very good too. I am looking forward to his work in Her later this year. Steve McQueen gave the film sort of a modern vibe, to make Northup feel more relatable to all viewers, which does give it sort of a weird feel in the historical/period landscape in which it is set. But overall, I thought it was really effective.