REVIEW: “12 Years a Slave”

12 years poster

I would think it’s a tough task for anyone with a moral compass to be able to sit comfortably through a movie about slavery. I would say it’s virtually impossible with director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”. This edgy, brutal, and uncomfortable drama takes a no-holds-barred approach in its depiction of one of America’s darkest times. That’s not always a bad thing. Sometimes people need to be jarred out of their comfort zone in order to truly understand the weight of the subject matter.

But in taking such an approach a movie is faced with an assortment of unique challenges especially in this case. McQueen has made some rather unusual comments on race and slavery. Some critics have lauded “12 Years a Slave” as the anti-“Gone with the Wind”, giving the one true and broad sweeping counter view of southern life and of all southern people. Things like this throw up unfortunate obstacles which can create a negative aura around a film. This can be a problem for those unable to separate such comments and positions from the movie itself. I try to judge a movie on its own merits and hope that the outside stuff doesn’t cause problems. Such was my approach to “12 Years a Slave”.

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The film is adapted from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. McQueen was deeply moved by this stunning story of a free black man who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. As advertised, McQueen’s film pulls no punches. The movie certainly looks at slavery and the plantation life from one specific perspective and it offers no room for any other interpretation. But amazingly it’s extremely effective within the context of the story. I never felt McQueen was making a blanket statement about the South. Instead I felt he was forcing the audience to look at slavery from a position that is so often swept under the rug. We do squirm. We do wince. But sometimes we need to.

McQueen’s direction is strong. He carves a number of piercing images into our minds many of which will stick with me for a while. It may be his artful camera movement that focuses on a certain object or it may be a long take where his stationary camera refuses to let us turn away from the brutality on the screen. He captures the natural beauty of the deep South while exposing the ugliness boiling out of some of his characters. The settings, the atmospheres, the environments all ring true and at no point feel fabricated.

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Helping his direction is a powerful yet subtle score from Hans Zimmer and an often times brilliant script from John Ridley. Ridley compliments McQueen’s vision by conceiving some powerful moments of unflinching truth. He also develops a number of characters that you’ll either strongly sympathize with or strongly detest. Regardless of which, you can’t take your eyes off of them. Unfortunately some of the film’s weaknesses can be traced back to his script. While at times Ridley’s story offers unquestionable greatness, I did feel he stretched things out a little too long. In a film like this you don’t want to do anything that would take the edge off of your message. I’m not saying Ridley did that, but he may have dulled it a bit during the middle of the movie. Thankfully things definitely picked up in the final act.

And then there is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon. It is something to behold. He’s a perfect choice for the role. It’s an emotionally and physically taxing role as we see him move from a happy free family man to a kidnapped, separated, and brutalized slave. The skill with which Ejiofor handles some of these intensely difficult scenes is mind-blowing.

He’s helped by a fantastic supporting cast, most of who give really good performances. Perhaps my favorite performance in the entire movie is from Michael Fassbender. He plays a mercurial and utterly abhorrent plantation owner whose volatility knows no bounds. He’ll make your skin crawl and his barbarism will have you questioning his humanity. Fassbender really sells him. I also really liked Benedict Cumberbatch who plays a gentler plantation owner with a moral sensibility yet conflicted with the very slavery that he participates in. And I have to mention Lupita Nyong’o who plays a slave caught in an unwinnable circumstance. She is fantastic.

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But there are two performances that stand out like a sore thumb. With a cast this big normally you could overlook them. But both are pivotal in that they drastically change Solomon’s circumstances. Paul Dano, an actor I’ve been very vocal about in the past, is just dreadful as a hateful slave foreman. Dano speaks his lines with that same weak, sniveling delivery that we’ve seen over and over. The problem is the role calls for something much more than he can deliver. Then Brad Pitt shows up complete with an Amish beard, a pretty corny accent, and with some of the more contrived lines of the entire film. To be fair, much of this falls in Ridley’s lap. He writes the character for the purpose of offering a moral summarization to the audience. He’s basically telling how to think and feel instead of just letting the potency of his film speak to our hearts.

While a few things do keep “12 Years a Slave” from being a masterpiece, it still is incredibly effective in giving us a look at slavery that is piercing and heart-wrenching. It does make us ask important questions but also appreciate how far we’ve come. Maybe there is an attempt here to give a one-sided visualization of the South, a perspective that has been shown to be untrue. But I didn’t get that from this film. I saw it as the incredible story of a man and his painful journey. His journey took him to dark and despicable places that are often times passed by. This film reminds us that they should never be forgotten. And for that alone Steve McQueen deserves a ton of credit.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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53 thoughts on “REVIEW: “12 Years a Slave”

  1. Solid review Keith. I too felt a few things held this back from being the true masterpiece it’s otherwise being touted as. You did a great job explaining how I felt about Pitt’s sudden presence on the plantation: “He’s basically telling how to think and feel instead of just letting the potency of his film speak to our hearts.”

    I was also struck by how sudden his situation comes to a close. I’m not sure how else it could have been handled, but I felt that the end came around rather forcibly. All the same, a pretty moving picture, but not one I’ll ever go back to I’m afraid

    • Thanks! I found it to be quite effective for the most part. But those speed bumps really slow it down and keep it from true greatness.

      Yep, Pitt just didn’t work for me. Something I didn’t mention was how he looked like Brad Pitt playing Bass. Contrast that with Fassbender who loses himself in the role of Epps. Brilliant performance there.

  2. Good review Keith. It isn’t out yet in the UK but I think it’s imminent, and I’m looking forward to it. Shame to hear about Pitt and Dano though – I like both of them but at least their roles are relatively minor.

    • Thanks man. It’s still getting Rave reviews from most over here. It deserves praise. It’s just not a perfect film. A couple of hiccups with Ridley’s script and a couple of eye-rolling performances are pretty glaring.

  3. For what it’s worth, I thought both Dano and Pitt a bit better than you do, but then I would call this a thematic masterpiece, so I suppose that’s not surprising. I will still agree, Dano is the flick’s weakest actor in a prominent role. I just think he’s still good enough that it didn’t bother me.

    All in all, very good review!

    • Thanks for reading. Unfortunately I thought Dano was just awful. For me he didn’t have what the role needed. I also felt he was horribly overacting. Some of Pitt’s problems are due to the writing. But I also never got past that it was Pitt playing a character. Fassbender was just the opposite. He became Epps.

      Still I think we both were really effected by the film. I’m not a huge McQueen fan but man he impressed me here.

      • I haven’t seen McQueen’s other movies (I know, I know. What cinephile hasn’t seen Shame?), but he puts together one amazing film here. Am I a fan of his? I don’t know. But of this movie? Oh yeah. 🙂

        I will agree on Pitt. He certainly never transcends the character, but then I don’t think Cumberbatch, Giamatti or (even) Sarah Paulson do either. In the end, they’re all movie stars playing relatively minor characters. Only so much life they can breathe into them, right?

      • See I thought Cumberbatch and especially Giamatti were quite good. In Paul’s short amount of screen time I detested him. He really sold that character to me.

        Hey don’t feel bad. I haven’t seen “Shame” either (and probably won’t). Not my cup of tea.

      • 🙂

        I think they were good, too. I guess what I’m really saying is that Pitt’s performance didn’t bother me, so I consider it similar to the others’. 🙂

  4. Nice review Keith. This is a movie I think I respect more than I actually liked, but still, it’s a movie that will probably sit in a lot of people’s minds for quite some time. As it should, too.

    • I love you’re line about respect/like. I can really see that. Although I did really like the movie. Powerful stuff. I do wonder if that powerful material will be enough to make some people overlook flaws they would otherwise call out. We’re already seeing that with some of the professional critics.

    • You very well could. It has some powerful and piercing moments that got to me. Interestingly enough though, I thought McQueen was pretty restrained. As brutal as it sometimes is, I was really expecting it to be more so. The greater brutality is mental instead of physical and sometimes that’s the hardest.

      • I think being South African anything with a race relations element hits me harder that it would someone who didn’t grow up with that in the background. It’s in no way comparable but I cried all the way through The Help (all the way) and Catch A Fire made me feel sick for days after it.

      • Ok, if you cried throughout “The Help” I’m afraid this movie will absolutely devastate you. It’s so much more potent and unnerving. It’s handled very respectfully but it doesn’t pull many punches. It could really be a difficult watch for you.

  5. A great review. This film’s film that sounds like it has everything going for it, great cast and great director. I particularly like the way in which it’s not pulling any punches, concerning the subject matter.

  6. I agree with so many things in your review – the fact script had weakness and Dano’s weak performance. I thought the film was good but given the praise it’s getting it’s really overrated. McQueen’s directing style really didn’t suit the story with so many characters and for me he didn’t explore anything as well as he did in his previous 2 movies with small number of characters.

    • Thanks for reading. I really was expecting a little more considering the extremely high praise this film is getting. But overall I still really appreciated it. I just think its flaws are a little too much to overlook and ultimately that kept it from getting a higher score. I’m still anxious to watch it again.

  7. Nice review. I was one of the film’s biggest fans and thought Pitt and Dano did good jobs (even if the former was a bit forced into the film), but fully agree about Ejiofor’s and Fassbender’s performances. Hope they both get Oscar nods for their roles.

    • Perfectly appreciate your take on it. For me they weren’t that impressive. Dano especially stood out to me. In fact, a small never of people in the theater during my showing actually laughed at a couple of his line deliveries. I dunno, for me he just didn’t have the pop that the character needed.

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  9. Excellent review Keith, you’ve got such a clear way in describing how you feel about a movie that I need to take notes on. When I saw this I hadn’t heard of the anti-”Gone with the Wind” comment, and I must say I think it’s ludicrous. It’s a story about slavery, yes, but I see it more as a personal story about a man in the darkest days of his life rather than a blatant political agenda. Like you said, it’s a dark chapter in humanity that we must never forget and McQueen did a brilliant job in really immersing us into the journey of his characters. Ejiofor is simply superb, and though I wasn’t as bothered by Dano or Pitt here, I agree that the former is perhaps the weakest part of the whole cast.

    • Thanks Ruth! Such kind words. I really liked this movie and it is well made. I stays out of the trappings of exploitation shock value and (as you mentioned) tells a personal story that takes place in a very dark period in American history.

      I just couldn’t stand Dano here. I felt his character needed to be stronger than what Dano brought to the role. I also thought he was terribly overacting. My reaction to Pitt has a lot to do with the writing. He just pops up and begins summarizing how we the audience should feel. It was such a neat and tidy choice. But you know, I think I’m in the minority with Pitt. Most people had no problem with him so maybe I need to give him another look.

      Thanks again for reading, the kind words, and for the tons of support! ALWAYS appreciated.

      • No I totally understand where you’re coming from about Pitt’s character. It’s funny though, I’m usually not fond of him as an actor, but the fact that I already knew which part he plays, I couldn’t wait to see him come on screen y’know. You’re right though, suddenly he becomes the voice of reason. I think some people probably have issues the fact that he’s Canadian, too! So it’s like the North are GOOD people and the South are well, you know. Of course that’s a big stereotype but it made it could’ve been [mis]interpreted that way.

      • Have you read the autobiography? I haven’t but now I’m very much interested in it. I was listening to a podcast where someone said that Solomon wrote that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character was “the nicest, most Christian man I ever met”. He didn’t specify just in the South. Adds a very interesting dynamic to that character.

    • You can tell McQueen has a much bigger canvas here but he makes great use of it. Unfortunately there are a couple of performances and a short flat spell that brings it down just a tad.

  10. Wonderful review, Keith. I loved the film, but agree with you about the annoying habit of telling me how to feel instead of showing the story and let me come to it on my own. Great job! 🙂

  11. Great review here, Keith. For my money, this is the best film I have seen all year. I agree that Pitt stood out a bit (not in a good way), but I thought Dano was effective in his weaselly way, not unlike that of his performance in There Will Be Blood.

      • This was an extraordinary film. It’s definitely brutal, but I feel it’s also honest filmmaking. This is not a subject to be sugarcoated. I just watched it tonight and I was moved to tears by the time the credits rolled. I feel it’s a very important film, one that’s very relevant to some of today’s issues. I’m a little more forgiving of Dano, but everybody else just knocked it out of the park, especially Ejiofor.

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