FlixChatter Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

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In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

I saw this film two months ago and it was an early screening at 11 in the morning. I made the mistake of going back to work after this, as I was so shaken by it I could barely concentrate on even the simplest tasks. It’s the kind of film that’s perhaps seen alone or at least not with a big group of friends, because it would leave you so speechless afterwards that one would not be good company for a lively conversation.

The title says it all, it’s an incredible story of a formerly-free black man ended up sold to slavery and having to endure it for twelve agonizing years. Based on an autobiography written in 1853, the fact that Solomon survived this ordeal doesn’t exactly make this retelling any less harrowing, director Steve McQueen makes sure of that. The way the story is told is pretty straight-forward, we see Solomon with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. An educated man and trained violinist, he lives a good life with his wife and two kids, until one fateful day when two men claiming to be from a touring circus duped and drugged him. That following morning, Solomon finds himself chained to the floor, no doubt it’s the start of the darkest decade of his life.

This is the first film of British filmmaker Steve McQueen that I saw. As I wasn’t familiar with McQueen’s previous works, the main draw for me is Chiwetel Ejiofor and he absolutely delivered. It’s as if I wasn’t watching an actor simply playing a role, Ejiofor became Solomon and everything from his mannerism to his soulful gaze lends authenticity to the character. What happened to Solomon is tragic and he’s a victim to be sure, but there’s a defiant strength in him that’s so compelling. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” He says, at one of the pivotal moment in his journey, and as life deals him one nasty blow after another, he clings to that glimmer of hope that one day he’d live again.

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McQueen doesn’t spare us the goriest and most vicious details of Solomon’s, as well as his fellow slaves. It’s truly an emotionally—and at times physically—draining experience watching this film as we’re subjected to several unflinching & sadistic violence that seems to go on forever. Though I appreciate the fact that McQueen doesn’t sugarcoat the story to make it more palatable, at times the extensive whipping scenes feels like it overpower the story. The whipping scene is bound to be one people talk about most, but there is also one incredibly disturbing scene involving Solomon half way through the film. It’s particularly harrowing not only because of the act itself, but the reaction of his fellow slaves around him. McQueen kept this scene on screen for a long time, too long for comfort, and that’s exactly the point. Yet it’s not just the brutal violence that really tug your heartstrings, I was practically sobbing watching the scene where Solomon was trying to write but simply couldn’t make the ink solid enough to use. It made me think how I’ve taken for granted the seemingly-simple things I have in my life.

The film intermittently shifts its focus from Solomon to the slave owners, particularly Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose brutality is matched only by his own wife (Sarah Paulson). In many ways, Mrs. Epps is actually scarier than her husband. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, they say, and boy it’s never more true here seeing a woman so madly-driven by jealousy that she couldn’t even recognize the intense suffering of fellow human beings. The subject of that sheer jealousy is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) as she’s the subject of Epps’ sexual urges. Her scenes are the toughest to watch, even the scene containing only dialog between her and Solomon is utterly heart-wrenching.

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This film has one of the best ensemble cast of the year and the actors delivered solid performances pretty much across the board. Paul Giammatti and Paul Dano played against type portraying some evil characters, though Dano overacted in his brief scene that it made me cringe. Benedict Cumberbatch gave Solomon a fleeting hope as a compassionate slave owner, but in the end he didn’t really make any real difference. There’s much buzz about the Kenyan newcomer Nyong’o with her devastating performance and she deserves them, but I think Paulson deserves equal kudos for portraying such a wicked persona convincingly. Speaking of which, it’s hard not to think of Epps as a devil-incarnate, yet there’s something in Fassbender’s eyes that somehow make us believe he’s not a soulless creature. Alfre Woodard has a bit part here as well, though I wish her character were explored just a bit more. Lastly, Brad Pitt, who also produced the film, showed up towards the end and it was clear even from the promos that he’s made to be the hero in the film. Well, I’m glad to see his character appears in the film though I didn’t think anything of it about his performance. The heart of the film is no doubt Ejiofor, portraying a man who’s down but not defeated, he somehow remains hopeful despite seemingly-impossible odds. I sure hope this role opens even more doors for him in leading man roles as he’s certainly got the talent and charisma.

As powerful as this film is though, it’s not exactly flawless nor would I call it a masterpiece in the same vein as say, Schindler’s List. As my friend Terrence pointed out in his review, I too feel that the treatment of time passing is way too subtle. I didn’t even notice so much about Solomon aging, which should’ve been more obvious in a matter of 12 years under such duress. John Ridley’s screenplay felt a bit too poetic at times which lessened the sense of realism. I also wish there were more continuation with certain scenes and characters, i.e. the flashback scene where Solomon was approached by a slave whilst he shopping with his family, as there’s no follow-up to that encounter later in the film. I also wasn’t too impressed by Hans Zimmer‘s score. For the life of me I simply can’t remember what it sounds like now, perhaps it was a bit too similar to his previous works.

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Final Thoughts: Even with the flaws, I still think this is a brilliant film that merits the praises it’s been receiving. McQueen’s meticulous direction with his no-holds-barred approach proves that he’s one of the most talented filmmakers working today, quite a feat considering this is only his third film. This film shows the absolute horror of what the worst of us are capable of, enhanced as well as contrasted by Sean Bobbitt‘s breathtaking cinematography. This is one of those essential films that ought to be seen. Even if it may take you days to recover from, it’s such a worthwhile cinematic experience.

four and a half stars out of five
4 out of 5 reels


What did you think of 12 Years A Slave? I’d love to hear what you think!

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50 thoughts on “FlixChatter Review: 12 Years A Slave (2013)

  1. I see it last night, Ruth, and I’m still trying to erase some images. Such a powerful film with equally powerful performances . McQueen’s Hunger and Shame are two of my favourite films and even though this didn’t quite match them in terms of intimacy, this makes it three out of three for this very talented director. Excellent review.

    1. Some of the images are so indelible it’d be tough to forget. Not just the whipping scenes but there’s one particular scene I mentioned which I’m sure you know exactly which one. It’s so heartbreaking!

  2. Good review Ruth. It’s a hard-hitting, brutal and unflinching flick that doesn’t turn away from even the most disturbing moments of its story. However, that’s what makes it deserving of being seen, if only for one time.

    1. Yeah, he definitely didn’t sugarcoat the story. As this is the first film from McQueen for me, I’m curious to see what he’d tackle next.

  3. I actually made the same time passing point in my review. I think that a minor flaw though, especially after reading Jordan’s (The Canadian Cinephile) argument as to why not marking time is actually a strength.

    And the score. I’d argue the score’s brilliance is not in its movements, like some composition’s. This one’s brilliance is in the way it compliments the images, the way it haunts us, enlivens us or otherwise makes us subconsciously feel exactly what McQueen wants us to feel.

    Now, I don’t think 12 Years quite as good as Schindler’s List, either, but as you will see in Zoe’s Top Ten series, I think they keep similar company. This is a powerfully moving flick.

    So powerful, in fact, that it took me thirty-ish minutes to remember where in Uptown I’d parked my car, after leaving the Uptown Theater. 😉

    I know it sounds like I’m totally disagreeing with you here. I’m not – I realize we both think this is very good. 😉

    1. Hi James, oh I don’t mind people *challenging* my review, esp when you do it in such courteous manner. I guess the quibbles I had are pretty minor, but the continuity part could’ve been handled a bit better. As for the score, I think you made a good point that it compliments the images. I just think his music often sound so similar to his other works.

      I saw this at the Walker Art Center and I’m glad the theater was barely full as I had two big swollen eyes as I got out of the theater. Oh boy, I could see how this film would mess w/ your brain that you forgot where you parked.

      1. Especially in Uptown, a part of the city with which I am very unfamiliar. 😉

        I think 12 Years is an incredible thematic and artistic film, which makes me fairly willing to overlook minor narrative flaws. For whatever that’s worth. 😉

        1. Truthfully, I’m not fond of going to Uptown, I always get disoriented and parking is always challenging.

          I hear ya, there are some films that I’m willing to look past the small quibbles too. This one is indeed artistic, the cinematography is so gorgeous that at times it reminded me of Terrence Malick’s films.

  4. It was my #1 film of 2013 but Gravity and The Wolf of Wall Street would change all of that as it’s now #4 thanks to Her. It’s tough to go against this film but it’s so fucking powerful. The ending in the film is what killed me.

    1. I’m just glad I already knew that Solomon survived this, somehow it made it more bearable to watch though certainly didn’t lessen the brutality of it all. It’s currently in my top 5 as I’m working on my my Top 10 list at the moment.

  5. The more I think about this film, the less I like it. The script was all over the place and McQueen’s style didn’t suit the story with many locations and big ensemble at all. But I like how they showed the villains – at no point I thought they were evil. Drinking lead Epps to hurting people and for his wife it was her embarrassment or heartbreak over how her husband treated her. I adored Cumberbatch’s performance. I thought his character along with Mistress Epps was the only non-cliche.

    1. Hi Sati, I’m not as enamored with this one as I was with Her, but still it’s quite a powerful film. Not having seen other McQueen’s films I had nothing to compare it to, but I heard that some people said it’s not as *intimate* as his previous works.

      Cumberbatch was great, way better than Brad Pitt was as the angelic hero or whatever. Funny that he cast himself in such a role as he gets the worst part of the script I think.

  6. Solid review Ruth. It was a 4 out of 5 for me too. Really appreciated McQueen’s raw and unpreachy portrayal of this amazing story. He pulls no punches which I found to be very effective.

    Like you said though it isn’t flawless. I agree that Dano is bad. Overacting indeed. He is a small character but a fairly important transitional one. Pitt is one I had big problems with. He didn’t completely sell me. He still looked like Brad Pitt playing this role. But the bigger problem is with how he is written. It’s as if McQueen wasn’t confident enough in the material that he had to tell us how we are supposed to feel. Pitt spells everything out and he is so on the nose.

    But still it’s such a strong movie and aside from the two I mentioned, the performances are phenomenal. I’m really anxious to see it again with my wife.

    1. Hi Keith! Glad we’re in agreement. Yeah, Pitt kind of took me out of the movie for me too, he probably is the least impressive performer of the ensemble which is a contrast to his star power.

      I don’t know if I could watch it again but perhaps if my hubby wanted to see it, he hasn’t seen it either.

  7. Nice review, Ruth. And you’re right about seeing this alone, I’m glad I caught a showing by myself, as this was one of those times I was left pretty speechless after the fact. Certainly a good movie, one that’s really hard to watch at times, and backed by a solid cast. 🙂

    1. Hi Chris! I saw this one and Her on my own and it’s certainly a different experience when you’re by yourself. I told some of my single friends that this is NOT a date movie, ahah.

  8. Ted S.

    I’ll probably give it a rent when it hits Bluray, not something I want see right away. I’ve read so many real bios about slaves and I could only imagine what they went through, it’s quite disgusting what people will do to one another.

    1. Hi there Ted! Do rent this one for the story, performances and scenery, which would look great on Bluray. Yeah, the depiction of human cruelty is VERY tough to watch, but I still would rather see this again than Wolf of Wall Street.

  9. Great review Ruth, a powerful film indeed. Despite some of the minor flaws I also think it’s an essential film and a part of history that shouldn’t be forgotten. Brad Pitt and his character took me out of the movie for a little bit … when he said he was Canadian some of the theatre audience chuckled – watched this here in Canada.

    1. Hi there, thanks! Ahah, it must be especially hilarious hearing Pitt’s accent for Canadian audience. Yeah he’s the least convincing in the entire ensemble, he should just be a producer and not cast himself in it.

  10. I really want to see this. Michael Fassbender is hands down my favorite actor and I don’t think I’ve seen him in anything where he’s quite this evil. I’ll plan on watching it on a Friday or Saturday though, I don’t think I could really work afterwards either!

    1. Hi Anne! Well I actually hated Fassbender after watching this but I guess that’s a testament of how good he is playing evil. His wife is even scarier though. Yeah, watch it on weekend when you don’t have to do much thinking afterwards.

  11. Fantastic review Ruth. Part of me is really looking forward to seeing this but part of me is slightly on edge given the apparently unflinching subject matter. I will still definitely see it though as I love McQueen’s previous work.

    1. I hear ya Chris. I guess it’s similar to Schindler’s List (which you’re gonna watch soon, right?) in terms of how heart-wrenching it is, though Schindler’s is still the better film I think. If you like McQueen’s previous work, I’d definitely give it a shot.

  12. “This is one of those essential films that ought to be seen” <— pretty much sums things up. And when someone like Brad Pitt is the least convincing performer…. you know you've got one hell of a cast!! Great review as always Ruth!

    1. Hi Asrap, yeah it’s kind of like Ben Affleck being the weakest performer in ARGO, but at least he was still excellent behind the camera! Pitt should just remain being a producer.

  13. “I think Paulson deserves equal kudos for portraying such a wicked persona convincingly”
    Completely agree, I thought she was excellent.
    Lovely review! I found Pitt’s cameo to be a little distracting, and his accent was kinda all over the place haha.
    Still, I enjoyed it a lot. Chiwetel Ejiofor really was excellent. I found McQueen’s direction to be a little distant, and I didn’t get a big emotional attachment to the film, which I was expecting to.

    PS – I wish Alfre Woodard had a bigger part too.

    1. Hi Jack! A few people have mentioned that about the emotional detachment, which is surprising given the subject matter. I mean, I think I was more emotionally-involved with films like Her, Gravity and Frozen (hmmm, all three have one titles!), which was quite a pleasant surprise. But still, I love Chiwetel’s performance here, I think most of the cast did a splendid job.

    1. So you only reserve not-so-deep movies for the big screen? 😉 Just kidding, I hear ya man, I cried a lot watching this that I wish there were no one around me as I was watching it.

  14. Terrific review! I liked the film a little more (4.5/5, or a weak 4/4), but I agree on the depiction of the passage of time, which could’ve been given more detail. For 12 years as a slave, the story moves very quickly. Still, it’s a harrowing experience with wonderful performances.

    1. It felt like it was maybe 3-4 years tops, but really it’s a small quibble I suppose. I probably wouldn’t have complained so much if the title didn’t say the number of years. But yeah, still a very harrowing depiction and Ejiofor did a stellar job.

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