12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave photo starrating-3stars.jpgBefore the American Civil War, a free black man named Solomon Northup lives in New-York, the north. But in 1841, he is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south. There in Louisiana he is kept in bondage for 12 years until 1853. The story has been adapted by screenwriter John Ridley (Red Tails) from Solomon Northup’s memoir as told to white abolitionist writer, David Wilson. The autobiography was a moderate hit, selling 30,000 copies in 1853, but then fell into obscurity for years until it was re-discovered by historians and republished in 1968.

There are moments in 12 Years a Slave that are excruciating. Director Steve McQueen’s gaze is unflinching as it lingers over the brutality in long extended takes. The dehumanization of slavery is presented as something for the audience to reflect upon. From the second Northup wakes up chained in a cell, there is no relief from the constant outrage. He is given a new name and sold as if livestock. An accomplished violist, he is reduced to destroy the very instrument he once held so dear. Time and again we see a litany of atrocities–humiliation, beatings, rape–for our evaluation. Northup standing half-strangled in a noose on his tiptoes, hands tied behind his back, is a positively agonizing scene. Though not the most physically bloody example onscreen, and there are several, it is nevertheless, agonizing to watch. The camera persists at a distance in one very long protracted sequence. His feet barely touching the ground, interspersed with his gasps for air, we see slaves in the background: children happily playing and women doing laundry.

12 years a Slave is an influential film. Its depiction has contributed to the ongoing examination of slavery in the U.S. Django Unchained (2012), Beloved (1998), Amistad (1997), Glory (1989), Roots (1977) have all been a part of the canon, but 12 Years a Slave is different. The uncompromising portrayal of the horrors of slavery is its raison d’être. This isn’t an apology, but rather a condemnation. Extreme degradation is represented in unwavering barbarism throughout the entire running time. Much in the way that The Passion of the Christ exhibited the unrelenting gore of the crucifixion. For anyone not aware of the violence, it’s likely to be heralded as a revelation. I almost find praise for the drama’s supposed eye-opening spectacle troublesome, as if one’s complacency has been newly awakened to the perniciousness of slavery. For those who had an epiphany while watching, questions should be asked. How did your opinion of slavery change? What was it before?

Certainly Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is the essence of the picture. It’s tragic to see a character who has his hope for rescue continually quashed or beaten out of him. His transformation from a carefree and happy family man to the downtrodden of society would be heartbreaking in anyone’s hands. However he maintains the humanity that we so desperately crave amongst the execrable representation of mankind on display. With his expressive eyes and quiet demeanor, he single-handedly commands our attention even amongst more flashy characterizations from his fellow actors. It’s a role that is subtle in its patience. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” he professes. His understated work further affirms that he is an actor with exceptional talent.

12 Years a Slave is a significant movie because it just might possibly be the first to truly flaunt the savagery in unexpurgated detail. What the historical epic does well is illustrating the lack of humanity that would cause one man to enslave another. There’s value in wallowing in the mire of its unpleasantness. But is graphic sadism enough to challenge your audience? I find the narrative doesn’t go far enough. There is such unspeakable physical and mental torture, I searched for answers. A great work of art would have dissected the mentality of the monster that could do this to another human being. Even after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am no clearer on why this ugly chapter in American history existed than I was before. There is craft in director Steve McQueen’s brutal reality. No film has done this in quite the same way before. For now, I suppose that‘s enough to add to the discussion of slavery, but the conversation is far from over.

24 Responses to “12 Years a Slave”

  1. Great review Mark. I have really high hopes for this as I loved McQueen’s Hunger and Shame. I appreciate your honest look at this, though.


  2. “Even after watching 12 Years a Slave, I am no clearer on why this ugly chapter in American history existed than I was before.”

    But the film does show why slavery existed. Religion!


    • The character Edwin Epps manipulated the Bible to justify slavery, but that’s not why it existed.


      • But how/why would the film show that?? The story is about 12 years in the life of a man who got abducted into slavery, long after the system had started and had become accepted as the norm.

        If you really want to go into an understanding of slavery, you’ll know that slavery always existed in various societies. So basically, human beings are just awful. It would be foolhardy for the film to try and delve into why it existed (although I’m confident that I’m correct in saying religion is the main reason it took hold and became established in the Americas).


      • To clarify further, slavery came about from a labor shortage and the allure of large profits by using unpaid workers. As we’ve seen throughout history and also in present times, people will lose some morality when it comes to interests of personal gain (holocausts, genocides, apartheid, segregation etc.). Just look at the causes of the recent financial crisis.

        In terms of the brutality of slavery and the idea of ownership, this did indeed come from a warped interpretation of the bible. That’s why I said that this the best way for the film to approach the existence of slavery. One of the brilliant things that the film does do, is to show that the bible gave them not just a mere justification, but a mandate! So in a Christian society, it would be heresy to oppose the notion of slavery. Thankfully, people eventually came to their senses.

        Most importantly, Solomon’s personal account wouldn’t have bothered to focus on the origins of slavery, he would have been much more concerned with his dire, immediate circumstances.

        Sorry for these long comments. I’m just really passionate about these things.


      • I’m not reviewing Solomon’s personal account. I’m contemplating director Steve McQueen’s interpretation of that work. As such, I would have appreciated a deeper examination.

        Don’t be sorry. Your comments are very thoughtful. I am thankful that the film has prompted discussions like these. It’s all part of the ongoing dialogue. So thank you! 🙂


  3. Nice review. I thought the narrative was strong enough to carry the movie. McQueen was trying to show how sadistic slavery was and I was glad he didn’t try to use sentimentalism for his goals.


    • Actually Brad Pitt’s character was a heaping dose of sentimentalism at the end there. Wasn’t looking for sentimentalism though, just felt the narrative could have gone deeper.


      • tracy.conner@gmail.com Says:

        Very thoughtful review. I think McQueen’s goal was not to provide a “why” to the ugliness of the human heart displayed in upholding the brutal tradition of slavery. His goal was to show what really happened without filter, to move us all to search our hearts for our complicity in such darkness, be it past or present. Can we not see the similarities between the system of slavery and current systemic ills against descendants of slaves (mass incarceration, abject poverty, unequal access to education)? Sadly, this narrative lives. I think the film did a brilliant job of allowing people to taste the suffering, and forcing them to ask, like you do, “How could this be?” Yet, it is not the director’s job to tell us why, but to get us to ask. The only travesty then is if the asking stops at the credits.


  4. i have to say, i’ve seen quite a few films that depict this time period just as brutal and excruciating. nothing is really new here, but i am glad solomon’s story has finally come to light. a well acted and well directed movie for sure.


  5. Terrific review man, very fair. For me, this was quite the heady experience. I exposed myself to so much buzz and reviews before I went, so I think I actually expected this to be, somehow – worse. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brutal. But I think I’m mostly with you on the narrative bit. With all that’s taken into consideration here, the level of depravity on display, that conclusion came around really, really conveniently. Now the way I just put that is awfully dismissive, but I would have liked to see, as you said, a more realized dissection of Epps’ mentality (or Thibeats’). McQueen has done justice here, but maybe not fully.


    • Thanks. Yeah, I feel like I have a clear understanding of WHAT happened. Now I still need another film to present the WHY.


      • you know what, in some senses perhaps the lack of any logic really being presented was part of it. McQueen wants to demonstrate not only the severity of the times, but the sheer lack of sense in any of it. slavery, ideologically, is pointless. though a lack of labor in those times necessitated some kind of low-wage “help,” slavery never should have occurred. it had literally no merit. maybe that’s the ‘why,’ we just don’t realize it quick enough. or the film suggests that we are meant to think about it deeper, when further reflection might not be needed. just a thought.


      • All valid points. I liked what Squasher88 said above: “slavery came about from a labor shortage and the allure of large profits by using unpaid workers.”

        Economic reasons are sometimes the basis to justify extreme evil. I only wish the film had searched as hard for answers as we’re doing now.


  6. I loved this film. I guess I expected it to be tough to watch at times, so no shocker there. I didn’t think it had to be “passion of the Christ” torture, but oh well. I believed this to be one mans point of view, so I watched it as 90% fact. I’m sure their were more brutal acts back then, as well as very respectful owners too. This was one mans horrible journey and I rode along. 4 1/2 stars.


    • I’d like to read the novel 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup to see how the book compares with the movie.

      I have heard that slavemaster Mr. William Ford is much more charitable in the book. “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford,” Northup writes. While Benedict Cumberbatch is nicer than Michael Fassbender’s character, he is by no means portrayed in a positive light.

      Apparently the agonizing scene where Solomon is left hanging, standing on his tip-toes was changed too. He is indeed tied up and left in the hot sun, unable to move, but not half-hanging by his neck as he was in the movie.


  7. My mother and I have been dying to see this. I have to check whether it’s in wide release.

    Anything I should expect from Steve McQueen? I don’t know his directorial work, and all I’ve heard is that he’s brutal.


  8. You really liked it at only 3 stars? Jesus. I’m so sorry.

    I felt like I was there at times during this movie. It was so violent. I’m almost having trouble believing this actually happened, and I guess that makes me sound pretty stupid, but I can’t imagine why someone would commit such cruel acts. We don’t really need a reason why, and in fact I’d say it better suits our disgust toward some of these characters if we have no clue why on earth slavery could have possibly begun.

    This was a lot like Schindler’s List for me, and one could definitely draw similarities between the Holocaust and slavery.


    • Why slavery begun? I will assume you mean in North America because the concept of slavery (forced labor) has existed at least since Biblical times.

      From Wiki Answers: “Slavery did not start in the Americas, nor was it restricted to black African people; it has existed in almost all cultures and continents…”

      That might help in your understanding as to why slavery began in the colonial United States. Although if I am reading your comment correctly, you not only don’t need a reason as to why slavery happened, but you actually prefer to not know since it fuels your disgust for these characters.

      Personally I think such despicable atrocities demand an explanation.


  9. I completely agree, Mark. There was nothing on show that really offered anything new or groundbreaking. I know relatively little about slavery in America and I’m ashamed to say that most of this I’ve learnt from films or TV. While many critics are falling over themselves to say how great the film is (the acting is amazing for sure, well, apart from Brad Pitt’s pseudo-Canadian) and McQueen’s direction is excellent, the narrative was merely a history lesson and little more. It’s a real shame, because I wanted to love 12 Years, but came out thinking it could have been so much better.


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