12 Years a Slave (2013)

I thought all slaves walk around to the sounds of James Brown and Rick Ross.

This the true story of one Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who, in 1853, was expecting to be in business with two circus men (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) looking to make a quick buck with the very talented violinist, but instead, found himself to be drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, all within a 24-hour time-frame. As soon as he’s shipped off to the South, he meets and interacts with fellow other slaves, as well as other slave owners that range from sympathetic (Benedict Cumberthatch), to downright despicable (Michael Fassbender). But through this all, Solomon realizes that he can’t continue to plead that he’s a free man who can read, write and work as well as any other white folk can, and just has to accept the reality that this is his life from now on and he must face it head-on. A sad reality, but a reality for many African-Americans (and whites as well) out in the South during this time.

Hard to believe that even after all of these years of coming very close to hitting the nail on the head of the slice of history that was slavery, it took a Brit director in the form of Steve McQueen to give us the most definitive, honest, painful and realistic look at it, and then some. We all know that there’s been some hype and some buzz surrounding this movie for quite some time, and while it may have taken me longer than expected to actually get out there to my local indie theater and give it a go, I’m glad I did because this is one of those flicks that many people will be paying attention to for awhile. Not just at the end of this year when Oscar talk is running rampant, but for many, many years to come, as it presents us with a view of slavery that has never been as grueling or as painful as this is.

"You're pretty much my best buddy. Just don't tell anyone. EVER!!"
“You’re pretty much my best buddy. Just don’t tell anyone. EVER!!”

And yet, all of that importance still doesn’t make it the best movie of the year, heck, maybe not even Top 10.

I know, I know, I know. The pitchforks are already seized and the torches have been lit, but please, I urge you to bear with me and see if we can maybe come to an understanding. And if not, I don’t care. I’m a movie critic, dammit! I got opinions, regardless of popular-belief!

The aspect in which I must give this movie credit for, is mainly in the way that it does not back-down a bit from what it wants to show us. Most of that credit does deserve to go to McQueen, as he has proved that, time and time again, he is one of the masters at giving us a downright nasty piece of subject-matter, throwing it out there on screen and allowing us to just watch as it all plays out in front of our eyes, while also having us come to our own conclusions about what he’s showing as well. I respect this decision, not just here, but with his other two flicks (Hunger and Shame) as it shown him as the type of director we all have to look out for as he might be changing the ways movies are made and looked at in today’s world. I know that’s one huge leap I’m taking, but it’s one that I feel confident supporting as the guy really seems like he hit his stride here. And then some…

See, the real reason why this movie works as well as it does is because it gives us the story of slavery that we all think we know by heart by now, and yet, shows us that we still don’t know all that much about it, nor do we actually even realize the REAL harshness behind it. We see Solomon go through all sorts of travesties in his time as a slave: People suddenly get killed, raped, sold, left-for-dead, or are simply never heard from again. But the saddest reality of all that this movie brings up more than a few times is the fact that, for these slaves, it didn’t matter if they lived, died, or how many times they were constantly being sold-off and moved around; because nobody knew about them, nor even cared. Most of these people were already born into slavery as it was, so they already knew that they had no lives outside of picking cotton to live, but even for the ones who were free and then eventually sold into slavery, they still had no certain level of existence in their loved ones’ minds.

These types of slaves couldn’t write to their loved ones, let them know where they were and how they could free them, because usually, it was too much of a risk to take in the first place. Not just by being caught actually trying to transport a letter from Point-A-to-Point-B, but letting your owner know that you are in fact a free man or women,who can read, write and do all sorts of other things that a typical slave doesn’t have the ability to do. That realization could have you either killed, sheltered away from the rest of the public till the end of your days, or threatened to keep your mouth shut and realize that it doesn’t matter what you can or cannot do; you are a slave, and you must work, work, work, and work. And when you can’t work no more, you’re dead.

End. Of. Story.

But see, that’s the strangest idea about this movie, as well as our society itself: We already know this harsh reality, and yet, we still can’t seem to get our heads around the fact that this was America at one point in time. All of these brutal feelings, thoughts, ideas and standards we set for the rest of our society were felt during that time-period, but are still ever so present in today’s day and age, that a movie like this must be seen to inform others about what happened back in those days, and how we’re still getting over it all. Because honestly, let’s face it, nobody will ever be able to live slavery down: Whites, blacks, Jews, Chinese, etc. None of them will be able to live it down, and that’s a mind-set that will probably be forever tattooed in our minds. The fact that slavery, although being abolished for more than 140 years now, will still never, ever go away. Will we ever move on as a society, or we will just continue to remind ourselves of what our nation used to be like?

Questions, questions, questions.

As you can tell, this movie definitely gave me plenty to think about, mainly important stuff, but while all of those ideas ran around in my mind, I still couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that despite it being an unflinching, powerful and important look at slavery, there was something holding me back from thinking it was the end-all, be-all masterpiece of the year. While the true story of Solomon Northup is one that should never go unnoticed, the framing of the story itself just felt too normal to me, as if everything we were seeing, all happened in a sequence, without much rhythm or rhyme. I get that this is most likely how Northup experienced most of these events, but for a movie, it just makes it seem less like a story being told to us, and more like a series of things that are happening. For instance, we get to see Solomon get sold-off to a couple slavers throughout his life-span which, rather than making you feel awfully terrible about the type of predicament he’s in, comes off more episodic, as if it’s a new chapter in the life of Solomon Northup, or how it probably read on paper.

He's also a producer on this. Wonder if he's got a big, rather important role?
He’s also a producer on this. Wonder if he’s got a big, rather important role?

The problem I had with this movie wasn’t that it was told to me in a way that easily understandable and comprehensive so that I understood all that McQueen was doing, at any given moment, it was just that there never really felt like much of an emotional-connection here that would have had me running along with Solomon and everybody else around him for as long as they wanted me to. Granted, I did tear-up a couple of times to the point of where I needed a clean wipe-down, but that was mainly because I was reaching for something to cry about. The movie that McQueen was giving me, wasn’t the nearest thing to “sentimental”, and while I give him credit for not soaping this story up to where it could have been laughable, a hint, or hell, even a smudge of sappiness would have really put me over the edge to where I felt like this movie was the emotional-experience of a lifetime. Instead, I just felt like it was a series of bad things, happening to good people, from bad people, and that was about it.

Oh, and slavery was bad, too. Mustn’t forget about that fact.

That’s why, even though many will disagree with me, this flick feels like it delivers on what it sets out to do, and yet, could have gone deeper and even further into it’s subject story, by creating emotions and feelings. But McQueen doesn’t roll that way, and although I respect his decision to keep it so, I still feel like it would have done him a great deal of good if he had decided to throw something in there for good effect. Maybe a couple more crying-sessions? Or character-development? Maybe? I’m just a dude with a blog, what do I know?!?!

What I do know though, is a great performance when I see one, and there is an exceptional one given by the always-excellent Chiwetel Ejiofor as none other than Mr. Solomon Northup himself. Ejiofor is one of these actors in which, it doesn’t matter how many great pieces of work he does in a year or throughout a whole career, he still will never be a household name. Which is a damn shame because the dude is so freakin’ talented, and has been showing this talent for years-on-end. I think now may be that time where it all changes, and he finally gets the credit he deserves. Now, I am not saying that he’ll win the Oscar this year, however, he will definitely be nominated and a sure-pick because of just what he goes through here.

Every emotion that that Northup feels, every thought that crosses his mind and every pain-staking reality that he is coming to terms with, Ejiofor channels in the most perfect ways. He’s very subtle with his emotions, but when he has to do let loose every once and awhile, you really feel the man’s strife for freedom and getting back to those that he loves the most: His family. You already feel bad for Northup in the beginning, considering that he’s practically tricked into slavery in the harshest way imaginable, but once things get going and he has to make decisions that will alter the rest of his future on Earth, then you realize that this is a human-being, no matter how many slavers around him try to prove to him otherwise. Some decisions he makes for the betterment of those around him, but sometimes, he makes decisions for the betterment of himself and to save his own ass. While any other movie based on this same story would have probably shown him as being a bit of a selfish guy, McQueen shows him with a moral compass in hand, making us realize that he’s just trying to survive, by any means necessary. He knows what’s right and what’s wrong, and the lines rarely ever get blurred. It’s only when others get in the way, is when they do, and Ejiofor shows this inner-conflict wonderfully, giving himself one of his best performances ever.

And trust me, that’s saying a lot. Don’t believe me? Just check out anything the cat’s ever done in his huge body-of-work. Trust me, you’ll be shocked to see what he was in. Minus this one. Yeah, on the second thought, don’t even bother with that one.

"Wanna go kill something? ANYTHING!?!??"
“Wanna go kill something? ANYTHING!?!??”

But while this is easily Ejifor’s show, he doesn’t necessarily steal it away from everybody else in this heavily-stacked cast. Which was a nice act on his part, considering that everybody you see in this movie, speaking-role or not, is a face that you’re at least familiar with. Actually, let me just get right off of a face that you’re not familiar with, as she is easily the most compelling character you’re going to get in this whole movie that isn’t Northup himself: Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. If you don’t know that name, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Neither does anybody else, but after this movie, I think you’ll be hard-pressed to forget it as she is amazing in every scene she has as the slave that Northup sticks with the most, and easily runs into the most problems with. Early on, it’s shown that Patsey starts a relationship with a slaver, that is less about rape, than it’s more about her trying to pleasure him and stay alive for as long as she can. While this act may be deemed “dehumanizing” in most eyes, it seems like the only act that she has left to live by, therefore, is giving it all she’s got with every hump she takes. Nyong’o’s eyes are expressive and convey an emotion everytime she shows up on screen, so definitely expect a nomination for her come Oscar-time.

Another person that you may also expect to be hearing whose name pop-up a lot is Michael Fassbender, playing that said philandering-slaver, Edwin Epps. Fassbender’s character is one demented soul; the type of guy you wouldn’t want to be around when he took one too many shots, nor would you want to be owned by him neither. Basically, Fassbender goes crazy in all of the right ways that gives you the idea that this guy is a twisted person you do not want to get on the wrong side with, nor do you actually want to be around. You just want to do the work he’s demanded you to do, no “ifs”, “ands”, or biggity “buts” about it. However, there is some semblance of a soul deep inside of this man’s crazy well-being, and Fassbender allows that play out very rarely, but still in a believable way to where he isn’t so over-the-top, he’s downright laughable. Same can be said for Sarah Paulson, who plays his wife, Mary, in a very chilling, yet understated performance that tells us a lot about this character, without telling us much at all. She’s just that damn good of an actress, one that I wish got more notice.

Others in this movie that are pretty damn hard to watch, mostly by of how despicable and unlikable they are, are performers such as Paul Dano as a worker that feuds with Northup many times, Paul Giamatti as an owner whose trying to make a quick buck as a business salesman who specializes in human-lives, Garret Dillahunt as a rare-case of being known as a white slave, among many of the black faces, but still can’t be trusted, Alfre Woodard as mistress that takes pride in the fact that she bangs her owner and gets treated like a white woman and especially Benedict Cumberthatch who plays one of the first slave owners Northup deals with, and is more sympathetic than the others out there, because even though he realizes is bad, he still does nothing about it. Instead, he just continues on with his business, selling away more and more humans lives, like many others were doing at that same point in time; the same point in time we will never soon forget.

Consensus: Most definitely going to be the one film you must see before the year ends, 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing, uncomfortable, somber and disturbing look inside the life of one man who had a journey much like many others during this time-frame, and yet, still never gave up hope and did all he could do to survive at any costs.

8.5 / 10 = Matinee!!

Yep, even he's ready for what's to come by the end of the year.
Yep, even he’s ready for what’s to come by the end of the year.

Photo’s Credit to: IMDBColliderJobloComingSoon.net


  1. Good review. I like this a whole lot more than you, and I think it very powerful, but I agree it could have put its narrative together a bit better. I think it needed to mark the passage of time better.

  2. You raise an interesting question regarding whether or not society will ever be able to move on? I think the short answer is no. Similar in ways to the Holocaust, the social ramifications of slavery still have ripples today. Though things have gotten better, there are still many parts of the world where people are being oppressed simply due to their race/faith/politics.

    Though I loved the film, I can understand why some will consider not worthy of the hype. I think the best way to approach 12 Years a Slave is as a horror film. It accurately displays the evils that mankind is capable of. One of the chilling aspects of it, outside of the scenes of brutality, is how even those who did not agree with slavery were still willing to go along with it. We are often more comfortable with going along with popular opinion, especially in a mob mentality society, rather than forging our own path. Cumberbatch is a perfect example of this, he is willing to make Northup’s life somewhat more tolerable but at no point would he ever consider giving him his freedom. Even Pitt’s righteous hero is hesitant to rock the boat.

    • Makes perfect sense. Even when these people understood that what it was that they were doing was bad, they couldn’t change their actions in any way, shape or form. Instead, they followed the current, made money and did what they had to do to get by in a world that was so allowing of slavery. We will never be able to get past it, but there are signs of improvement being shown out there. So that’s definitely something to pay close attention to.

  3. Interesting that you gave it an 8/10 – after reading this review I expected an A+. I really want to see this but it’s the type of movie that a) I’ll have to see myself and b) I need to be in the right state of mind to absorb. After seeing Django I feel like this is the next step.

    It’s interesting that you stated that when you can’t work anymore, you’re dead. As you know I’m a huge animal activist and this is basically what I see in the animal world. That raises the same question addressed as the poster above me – can we evolve, or will we always have to maintain a slave society of some sort?

    • I think we’ll always be stuck with some of that same mentality, but we are showing briefs bit of moving on. It won’t fully happen at one time, but slowly and surely, it will. That’s at least what I feel, anyway.

  4. Wonderful review! I’m off to see this in a few hours here. I like that you brought up whether society as a whole will ever move on from this. I doubt it, but I hope it will. I would love to live in a world without racism, but that requires looking forward and not back.

  5. Great review as always man! In my review, I wrote it’s the most powerful film I never want to see again. I thought McQueen could have framed the passage of time a bit better to convey more of the weariness of this going on and on year after year.

    Definitely think this film has three Oscar acting noms and I’m curious if McQueen or Cuaron has the edge right now for Best Director.

    What do you think?

    • I think McQueen has a bit of a better edge due to the fact that his flick’s definitely connecting with people more than Gravity is. But I don’t know, it’s an interesting duel that will surely be panning out more and more throughout the weeks and months.

  6. Nah, not James Brown and Rick Ross, just some good ol’ fashion Inception music. 😉

    But yeah, I agree that, while certainly a great movie (and one that’s bound to get some Oscar nominations), it’s not one that’s gonna stand out amongst the best of this year for me at least come the end of the year. Good review, Dan. 🙂

  7. Great review, Dan! I liked this a little more than you did, and I do think it’s one of the year’s best, but I understand why you didn’t feel that way. I enjoyed reading your thoughts and take on it.

  8. The cynic in me suggests this one is pure Oscar-bait, but the overwhelming number of good-to-great reviews on it seem to suggest that it might be a well wormed hook indeed. I can’t wait to check this out for myself, and see just how well McQueen delivers on the premise.

  9. Solid review. This was such a difficult watch. So much so that I thought there wasn’t enough explanation as to why we should be thinking how crazy and unlikely Solomon’s kidnapping/rescue was/were. I think you nailed it on the head with “it just makes it seem less like a story being told to us, and more like a series of things that are happening.” To me, it was like McQueen in each scene said, “Here, look at this. Suffer through this. Got that? Moving on.” On and on it went. I don’t know. I was surprisingly underwhelmed by this one. Though the cast was absolutely fantastic and deserve any and all of the noms they will be getting

    • There just wasn’t an emotional-attachment to this material that could have really put it, as well as myself, over the hill. Instead, it just kept on hammering away at the fact that this was bad, very bad, but never giving us more than just that. More feeling would have gone a long way for this, I feel.

  10. Great review here! I too saw flaws, wanted more character development, but realized that this wasn’t the direction McQueen wanted to take. I did a lot of digging with this movie for my review, so you should check it out when you get it a chance. There’s still a lot of ignorant people out there who could benefit from seeing a film like this.

    “And yet, all of that importance still doesn’t make it the best movie of the year, heck, maybe not even Top 10.” As I keep saying, it may not be the best film, but it’s definitely a necessary one.

  11. Very well written Dan. I agree with so many of your points esp about emotions. I thought I would cry, but I never felt the need too. Lots of people can’t believe they would show all the brutual details about the slave life, but ultimately that was the whole point of this story! It must have been tough to fit 12 years into a 2:14 movie, but it felt so long that I feel I was with him the WHOLE time! haha.

  12. I like your take on this movie, it means something different to each person watching it I think, I’m now reading the book to see how far away the screenplay strayed from the actual story. I agree with you about the emotional level. McQueen didn’t let you get all the way pulled in for some reason, although I cried a lot during the movie. Patsey was brilliant. Very good review, and I can’t wait to see Oldboy!!!!

  13. Dan- just out of curiosity, do you believe that “The Hangover”, “The Blair Witch Project”, “The Muppets” (2011), “American Pie”, “Borat”, “Chasing Amy”, “Star Trek Into Darkness”, etc., are superior, more important films?

  14. Good write-up. I think the movie is effective because it is not sentimental. I don’t think I’d ‘teared up’ watching it, but then it’s just me. But it is still powerful and a movie that needs to be made. And you’re right, that’s what I was thinking too… that it took a British director, and a British actor to bring out this important piece of U.S. history. Oscar or no Oscar, I think this film will go down as one significant testament to history, mainly because it’s based on an actual memoir. I’m reading it now, and as McQueen had mentioned in an interview, it ought to be taught in school, just like The Diary of Anne Frank.

  15. Very good and honest review! I agree with your rating, and that it did lack a bit of that emotional connection, maybe because it gave too much focus on Michael Fassbender’s role, or the torturing, I’m not sure. But still a must see. Good to have met another movie geek, keep the honest reviews coming, that’s your privilege as a reviewer/critic!

  16. A well-analysed and meticulous review. I too had given the movie 4/5 stars, which I think is equivalent to an 8.5 when rated against 10 stars. Barring some really miniscule flaws, the movie is great on the whole.

  17. I am just discovering your blog and I recently started blogging about film myself! I just watched this movie as well as “Hunger” this week. As you said, McQueen just throws in your face really difficult subject matter for what it really was. This is a very wonderful detailed review of this marvelous film! I also felt that there could have been a bit more character development, but the movie definitely fulfilled its purpose and will forever etch its mark into film history.

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