Movie Reviews

‘12 Years A Slave’: An unflinching look at America’s darkest past

By Wang DexianMovies - 18 December 2013 12:00 AM

‘12 Years A Slave’: An unflinching look at America’s darkest past

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Rating: 4.5 / 5

In the past year, there have been quite a few movies that have touched on the subject of slavery and racism in America. 

‘Django Unchained’ was purely a revenge fantasy, ‘Lincoln’ focused on the president's fight to push the 13th Amendment through as the civil war ended, and ‘The Butler’ explored many issues with segregation in the 20th century, post-emancipation.

Now, comes Steve McQueen's ‘12 Years A Slave’, an adaptation of the book of the same name. 

The film stars Chiwitel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man living in Saratoga Springs, New York. He supports his wife and two children as a violinist and carpenter. While his family is away on a short trip, he is offered a lucrative gig with a travelling circus by two men, and goes to Washington, DC with them.

Initially floored by their generosity, Solomon wakes up from a night of drinking, only to find himself chained and about to be sold into slavery. From there, he is shipped to New Orleans, beaten and forced to assume the identity of “Platt”, a runaway slave from Georgia.


It then gets rather unsettling, as Solomon and the other slaves get whipped repeatedly in this two-hour picture and it never gets any easier to watch. 

Abusive name-calling gets more frequent, each filled with more venomous intent than the one before. 

A particularly disturbing moment is when Tibeats (Paul Dano), a deeply prejudiced carpenter, welcomes the new slaves by getting them to clap their hands in unison. He then proceeds to sing a derogatory song while they carry on clapping. 

It is all truly hard to watch, and you are squirming from what is happening on screen.  

Director McQueen and his crew's attention to detail shows in the way that the movie is shot and presented. Many wide shots are used effectively, with other slaves and white folk turning a blind eye to the horrors of what is going on around them, showing both the helplessness and the acceptance of the circumstances then. 

Accompanied by a sparse but especially moving Hans Zimmer score that frequently underscores the visuals with a frantic sense of irony, ‘12 Years A Slave’ is the work of a filmmaker in control, a work presented almost perfectly without frills and unnecessary distractions.

12 years a slave
Benedict Cumberbatch's William Ford with Chiwitel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup


If you needed more convincing to see this film, the acting in ‘12 Years A Slave’ are some of the best you will see all year.

Ejiofor’s performance is bolstered by a strong inner strength that retains hope and memories of his past life even as he lives through his nightmarish ordeal. Michael Fassbender also stands out as Edwin Epps, Solomon's second owner. 

Unlike the more gentlemanly William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Fassbender's Epps is a furious ball of lunatic energy, and he takes delight in making life as miserable as he can for his workers. 

A side plot, featuring Epps' obsession with female slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) was also one of the highlights of the film, and should earn the actress a nod for her breakout performance.

‘12 Years A Slave’ seems destined to join the ranks of other memorable “feel terrible” movies such as Steven Spielberg’s ‘Schindler's List’. And the brilliance of this film is that McQueen and his actors have not sugarcoated anything.

It shines a light on a real horror that post-slavery generations have had the fortune of avoiding, serving as a poignant reminder that humanity should never repeat it.

‘12 Years A Slave’ opens in cinemas 19 December 2013