12 Years a Slave: McQueen’s Powerful Tale of Slavery

12_years_a_slave_posterToronto Film Fest 2013–A film of strong impact and harsh brutality, 12 Years a Slave is Steve McQueen’s third and most significant feature to date. The movie is based on the factual tale of the African American slave Solomon Northup, from his kidnapping and bondage in 1841 through painful torture and abuse all the way to his ultimate freedom in 1853.

The talented McQueen has made two challenging films before, Hunger and Shame, both starring Michael Fassbender, who also offers the link to the new picture. However, 12 Years a Slave is his first historical epic, working on a bigger canvas than ever before in relating this painfully detailed chronicle of a noble man who, against all odds, remains unbreakable, in body, heart, and soul.

Though it is not a film cycle yet, 12 Years a Slave deals with the painful issues of slavery and racism following Spielberg’s historical account Lincoln, Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which unfolded as a flashy, ultra-violent actioner, and Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which found an accessible angle of a family melodrama to relate the broader tale of the Civil Rights movement.

12_years_a_slave_9World-premiering at the Toronto Film Fest, after showings at Telluride Fest, 12 Years a Slave was greeted with huge applause and appreciative response from critics and audiences, thus emerging as a top contender for the upcoming Oscar season: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay (Adapted) and others. In the lead role, Chiwetel Ejiofor, playing the most challenging part of his career to date, renders a compelling, multi-nuanced performance that should easily earn him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Few American films have dealt with slavery as a shameful socio-economic and political institution, based on exploitation, subjugation, abuse, and humiliation. Who knows? Perhaps it needed an outsider, a British director such as McQueen (who is black) to tackle the issue so directly, ferociously, and effectively.

12_years_a_slave_8Attacking slavery head-on, in a serious (but not didactic) and unflinching (but not exploitation) mode, 12 Years a Slave is more provocative and impactful than all of the aforementioned titles. Remarkably, McQueen’s film is devoid of Tarantino’s borderline exploitation tendencies through their stylized set-pieces, or the didactic earnestness of Lee Daniels The Butler. McQueen takes slavery as a given historical reality.

When first seen, Northup is in shackles, beaten ferociously when he asserts his status as a free man. This is pre-Civil War America, when blacks have no legal rights and are largely treated as animals. A fellow hostage advises Northup to say as little as possible, including lying that he can actually read and write. “I don’t want to survive,” Northup says firmly. “I want to live!” And we know that he means every word of it.

Separated from his family, Northup faces horrible living conditions and situations that posit him against a rigid society, defined by white supremacy. Most white men in that era participated actively in a brutal, even barbarous system that demeans blacks, denying them the most basic rights.

12_years_a_slave_7Northup’s published memoir is poignantly adapted to the big screen by John Ridley (also credited as producer), and together with McQueen’s artful but sharp direction, the focus in on the 12-year-journey of one free man, stripped of his identity and name (he’s called Platt Hamilton), and working for three white men.

Though the filmmakers condemn racism as an institution and slavery as a system, they also allow for individual variations among the owners. Thus, two of them (played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Bryan Batt) are relatively decent men, even permitting their slave to play his fiddle, a reminder of his life in Upstate New York, before he was abducted.

But Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) represents another breed of owners, a man who justifies his actions and prides himself in breaking defiant slaves. “A man does what he wants with his property,” says Epps, the most vicious of the three overlords. On Epps’ plantation, Platt is required to pick 200 pounds of cotton each day and is savagely beaten when he fails to reach this record.

Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is a soft-spoken slave who Epps likes, to the consternation of his wife (Sarah Paulson). This jealous matriarch is the only stereotypical character in the film. Just watch her throwing a heavy crystal decanter in Patsey’s face, or urging her husband to beat her.

As I noted in my review of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, 12 Years a Slave is another worthy and relevant film that should be shown in schools of various grades and levels.  McQueen forces audiences to confront ideas that could potentially influence their knowledge, understanding, and feelings about this rarely dealt, shameful chapter in American history.


MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 135 Minutes. Released by Fox Searchlight. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, John Ridley. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay, John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup. Camera, Sean Bobbitt. Editor, Joe Walker. Music, Hans Zimmer. Production designer, Adam Stockhausen; art director, David Stein; set decorator, Alice Baker. Costume designer, Patricia Norris. Sound, Kirk Francis; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; supervising sound editors, Ryan Collins, Robert C. Jackson


Chiwetel Ejiofor

Michael Fassbender

Benedict Cumberbatch

Paul Dano

Garret Dillahunt

Paul Giamatti

Scoot McNairy

Lupita Nyong’o

Adepero Oduye

Sarah Paulson

Brad Pitt

Michael Kenneth Williams

Alfre Woodard

Chris Chalk

Taran Killam

Bill Camp.