12 Years A Slave (2013)

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I wish I'd found 12 Years a Slave more powerful. That may sound cold when written about a movie with subject matter as brutal as this, but I can't get past that feeling. The style of 12 Years a Slave is highly impressive. It looks unique. The cinematography, while sadly lacking a nomination, is stellar. But the style ended up feeling like the primary focus of the filmmaking, leaving behind less substance than a story like this deserves.

I never felt like I got to know any of the characters very well. As Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery, Chiwetel Ejiofor shines, as always. As wonderful as he is, the screenplay and direction left me feeling at a remove from him. There's been a lot of talk about Lupita Nyong'o's performance as a fellow slave who, as the master's favorite, becomes a focal point for part of the film. I struggled, however, to understand why. Why I was supposed to feel more for her than the other characters in similar predicaments. I struggle to fully understand why everybody felt so distant and not fully fleshed out. The character I found most intriguing was the master's wife, portrayed terrifyingly by Sarah Paulson. And she may have been the most intriguing simply because she brought some life to the film. I also have to give credit to the comedic turns of Brad Pitt and Taran Killam. Oh brother.

As a stylized movie, 12 Years a Slave is a considerable achievement. The look of it feels new. I just wish the focus on the characters hadn't been sacrificed along the way.


A lot of things really suck, ya'll. Getting broken up with sucks. So does overdrawing your bank account. On a larger scale, there are bigger things that suck: the explosion of the Hindenburg, the sinking of the Titanic, the collapse of the Glass Tower (see The Towering Inferno), George Bush's second term as president, etc. In terms of telling the story of gigantic things that suck on the big screen, there are some really, really unfortunate stories of maximum suckage that we return to often. We make a lot of movies about the Holocaust. We make a lot of movies about World War II, too. There are so many movies about Christ's crucifixion, it may as well be its own genre. And man, there are just a mess of films about slavery: Django Unchained, Glory, The Color Purple, Beloved, Amistad, Roots, Roots: The Gift. And then here comes 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave tells the story of 12 years and 2 days in the life of Solomon Northrup, an African American fiddle player who, despite his status as a free man, I sold into slavery. Passed from plantation to plantation, Solomon struggles to remain optimistic about his chances of reuniting with his wife and two children, despite his status as "that quiet black guy who's good at building stuff and can play small stringed instruments with a neck'. Some of the plantation owners he works for are kind of nice-ish (Benedict Cumberbatch) and some are real assholes (Michael Fassbender). Some of the people he meets on the plantations are kind of nice-ish (Brad Pitt), some pretend to be nice but are actually jerks (Garret Dillahunt), and some are just jerks (Paul Dano). Solomon (dubbed Platt by his first "master") makes a few friends among his fellow slaves, most notably a young woman named Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong'o) whose fortunate superpower is the ability to pick cotton really quickly. Girl power. Will Solomon make it home? Will he and Patsey kiss? What the hell is Brad Pitt doing in this movie? Lots of questions here, folks.

Does America need another film about the major suckage of slavery? Probably not. Does America need more films that are really well directed and wonderfully written and superbly cast and gorgeously shot and perfectly scored and and andÉ? Absolutely. While I spent the first hour and a half of the film rolling my eyes because "I've seen this before", I spent the latter hour of the film just marveling at how good it was. I'm not sure what made the change. It doesn't really matter.

12 Years a Slave is probably going to win Best Picture at this year's Oscars. Cool. It's not the best movie I saw last year, but its one of the better ones. Chiwetel Ejiofor probably won't win Best Actor because he didn't lose half of his body weight to star in this movie. Cool. Lupita Nyong'o had better win Best Supporting Actress, because if Jennifer Lawrence wins for American Hustle, I'm probably going to barf.

If we're going to continue bringing stories of major suckage to the big screen, we can only hope they're as good as this one. Or that their score is one of the best ever written (Schindler's List). Or that they star someone as attractive as Jim Caviezel as Christ (Angel Eyes).


12 Years a Slave is based on a true story about a northern African American "free" man who is sold into slavery in the antebellum deep South. Steve McQueen has a somewhat minimal style of directing that frequently feels invasive, gritty, and cold. He likes to turn the camera focused and lingering on his actors so that they tell a story through their actions and expressions. Often this produces scenes that are extremely hard to watch without flourish or softening, and we are forced to see the torture and suffering afflicted on these men and women that were treated as property and worse than animals. One scene of particular discomfort sees our main character, brilliantly played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, being forced to whip his young female confidant, played by Lupita Nyong'o. The scene goes on for some time focusing on both Nyong'o and Ejiofor's faces while loud thrashing noises ensue and spray of sweat and then blood erupt from Nyong'o's back. It continues to get louder and louder while Nyong'o screams and eventually the camera turns to her back and we se the actual splitting of her skin.

There are many upsetting scenes throughout the film. It just doesn't let up. Matters seem to get worse and worse, and are emphasized by little moments of hope that are later dashed. At one point, McQueen sums up everything by having the camera linger on Ejiofor who just stands there in complete and utter loss of hope, dripping with sweat, and looking around at his world simply lost in misery.

Overall, this is a masterpiece of cinema. It is essentially a story of slavery we all know, but which has never been so fully realized on screen. Hans Zimmer's score perfectly accentuates horrific scenes with industrial booming and clanging and melancholy scenes with powerfully melodic strings. Unfortunately, towards the end of the film, Brad Pitt enters and gives a distracting performance with a laughable Southern accent that took me out of the film for a few moments.