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(2013) (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender) (R)

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Drama: A free black man is kidnapped and sold into the 1840s slave trade where he must endure the hardships of living at and working on several Louisiana plantations.
It's 1841 and Solomon Northup (CHIWETEL EJIOFOR) is an educated black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two young children. An accomplished violinist, Solomon gets a temporary job offer from two men who ask him to play in their circus in Washington, D.C. With his wife and kids away from home for a bit, he thinks it sounds ideal. Little does he know that their plan is to drug him into submission and then sell him to a slave trader. Informed by others in the same horrific situation to play dumb and not reveal his intellect or true identity, Solomon reluctantly agrees to go by the name of Platt and ends up sold by slave trader Theophilus Freeman (PAUL GIAMATTI) to Louisiana plantation owner William Ford (BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH).

Ford is a highly religious man and treats Solomon with kindness despite owning him as property. Unfortunately, he can't control his head carpenter, John Tibeats (PAUL DANO), who views slaves as owned animals and doesn't like Solomon showing him any resistance. With that nearly ending in Solomon's lynching, Ford sells him to cotton farmer Edwin Epps (MICHAEL FASSBENDER), a hard-drinking, womanizing plantation owner whose obvious lust for slave Patsey (LUPITA NYONG'O) evokes an increasingly hostile jealousy in his wife, Mary (SARAH PAULSON).

Patsey sees something of a kindred spirit in Harriet Shaw (ALFRE WOODARD), the slave-turned-mistress of another plantation owner, but Edwin's treatment of her isn't as gentle. His treatment of all of his slaves doesn't sit well with Samuel Bass (BRAD PITT), a hired hand who works alongside Solomon doing carpentry work for Edwin.

As the years pass, Solomon must contend with brutal and savage racism, all while trying to keep his intellect hidden and hoping one day to see his family again.

OUR TAKE: 8 out of 10
There's a scene in the first act of "12 Years a Slave" that contains one of, if not the most powerful directorial moment in all of the films from 2013 to date. It's not some big action sequence or special effects extravaganza. Nor does it contain a single moment of acting from anyone in the cast, although what comes before and after the sequence more than adequately bookends it.

Instead, it's a fairly simple shot, starting in close-up and slowly pulling out, of the various paddles of a large paddle wheel systematically but violently churning through the water like some unstoppable force. Inside that boat to which the paddle wheel is attached and providing locomotion is Solomon Northup (terrifically played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in an Oscar worthy performance), a formerly free black man of the 1840s who's been drugged, kidnapped and now sold into slavery by some unsavory types.

Stripped of any identification along with papers stating he's a free man, he's been relabeled as an escaped slave from Georgia and is now headed for an uncertain but certainly brutal future in Louisiana. The shot is significant as it symbolizes the seemingly unstoppable slave trade mechanism into which he's been thrown and the sort of sadistic hamster wheel that just keeps going 'round and 'round. But director Steve McQueen doesn't stop there as he then pulls the camera out to reveal the literal and figurative wake of that churning, and the rough seas that lie ahead for the protagonist.

It's just one of many agonizingly mesmerizing moments in this brutal and unflinching movie about slavery in the United States. While Quentin Tarantino showed some of the horrors of that in last year's "Django Unchained," that was more of a pseudo dramedy revenge fantasy where the filmmaker got to show off his stuff and splatter the walls and his characters with cartoonish amounts of blood. Here, it's played straightforward as it should be, although the presentation might be too graphic, intense and disturbing for many a viewer.

To be accurate, McQueen -- who works from John Ridley's adaptation of the real man's autobiography of the same name (and originally published in 1853) -- doesn't shy away from his own directorial flourishes. Whether it's an unflinching view of a horrible whipping, an incredibly long and close-up view of his protagonist's facial reaction to what he's seeing and experiencing, or a harrowing near fatal hanging that plays out over a few minutes but feels like an eternity, McQueen ("Shame," "The Hunger") is obviously showing his directorial prowess. Here, however, they serve the film rather than the filmmaker, at least in terms of exemplifying the horrors of what's occurring.

What also serve the film are the terrific performances that should result in slews of award nominations and possible wins for the various cast members. Ejiofor is nothing short of outstanding playing the educated man who has to bite his tongue and hide his intelligence (and outrage) in order to survive. The aforementioned close-ups of the actor are about as powerful as they come.

Playing a brutal plantation farmer and slave owner, Michael Fassbender is chillingly perfect in the role, thankfully never going over the edge into caricature of such a monster with all sorts of skeletons and warped thinking in his closet. Benedict Cumberbatch is also good as a somewhat more benevolent plantation owner, while Paul Dano is quite effective as a mean worker there who hides his otherwise cowardly ways behind his mental facade of superiority over any people with darker skin than him.

On the ladies side, Alfre Woodard is somewhat chilling as a slave turned owner's mistress who's adopted the ways (behavior and mindset) of white wives, while Sara Paulson is scary as such a wife who becomes increasingly jealous and hostile toward the object of her husband's affections. And that woman is embodied by Lupita Nyong'o who plays a hard-working slave who outperforms her male counterparts in terms of cotton picking but must contend with her master's lustful-meets-hateful treatment of her. It's a stunning and moving performance on her part.

All of that said, the film isn't without a few missteps. A sequence featuring Brad Pitt (one of the film's producers) goes perhaps a bit too far in the Jesus symbolism (a long-haired carpenter who speaks his mind, believes in equality for all, and offers to potentially sacrifice himself to save another soul), even if it's somewhat based on reported fact. And despite the film's title and a running time of more than two hours, it never really feels as if twelve years have passed during the course of the story, especially with the third act resolving of the issue at hand quickly arriving and playing out without much complication.

Perhaps a longer version with additional footage or lengthened scenes existed at one point. Whatever the case and certainly not implying I'm a voyeuristic sadist (considering the brutality of some scenes), but I wanted to see a bit more in terms of the character and how those many years both changed him but also furthered his resolve not only to survive, but also live.

But those are just a few minor quibbles in what's otherwise an extraordinary but often difficult to watch film. With terrific cinematography from Sean Bobbitt, a restrained but highly effective score by Hans Zimmer, other top-notch technical credits and superb work from McQueen and the cast he's assembled, this should be one of the top Oscar contenders of the year. Just be prepared for moments that will likely be seared into your mind and soul for some time. "12 Years a Slave" comes off somewhat like "Schindler's List" in that its excellent but you might not ever want to watch it again. It rates as an 8 out of 10.

Reviewed October 14, 2013 / Posted October 18, 2013

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