REVIEW: 12 Years A Slave


600full-12-years-a-slave-posterHaving the ability to cinematically re-tell a chapter of history has expanded rapidly in this generation. The majority of bio-pics and historical-dramas feature a story with oppressive contents; however, there are the odd few true stories which depict a touch of hope within humanity. 12 Years A Slave tells a story of pre-Civil War America that represents the brutality of slavery whilst within it, introduces Solomon Northup’s extraordinary and touching tale during enslavement. Following in similar footsteps to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List and Roman Polanski’s The Pianist, 12 Years A Slave certainly does provide enough visual persuasion of 1800s American slavery whilst also becoming a fantastic bio-pic filled with sublime performances from its ensemble cast and breath-taking mise-en-scéne.

Although slavery in America occurred in the 19th century, for Hollywood to illustrate and promote an oppressive piece of their history may have been difficult. Still, the aim was to interpret American slavery as it was at the time. Last year we saw Django Unchained, a slight historical twist of slavery in the US but 12 Years A Slave more realistically portrays a brutal reflection, especially the attention to detail in moments of violence and abuse. Furthermore, slavery in 12 Years A Slave is centred primarily on Northup’s personal experience in which the whole concept becomes both disturbing and inspiring. Similar to the representation of the Holocaust in Schindler’s List and Nazi-invaded Poland in The Pianist, Northup’s 12-year odyssey of enslavement exposed inner faith, which is the key to a bio-pic told within a hostile environment.

Prior to directing 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen had only made two features – Shame and Hunger, both of which are low-budget, British independent films. In their own ways, both have been sadistic projects from the perspective of its protagonist. In that sense, 12 Years A Slave and its contents became prominent to McQueen’s directorial style and subject choice. 12 Years A Slave became less independent than McQueen’s previous works and had consequently become a high-standard film, with a higher budget and more Hollywood-y touch to it. At the same time, it still maintained the perspective of Northup within the dark and raw surroundings. Similarly, while the subject is oppressive, the actual production of 12 Years A Slave was beautiful, particularly Sean Bobbit’s cinematography who occasionally highlights the natural landscapes; therefore, enhancing the realistic touch of 1800s America.

Throughout his career up until now, Chiwetel Ejiofor has been ‘that actor’ who made regular supporting appearances behind central stars. However, Ejiofor leads the pack in this historical-drama with a superb breakthrough performance. Similar to Adrien Brody’s performance in The Pianist, Ejiofor reflects Northup’s clear family-minded, sensitive nature whilst exhibiting the horrors of slavery. We observe many African-Americans in 12 Years A Slave but Northup becomes the black male slave as his journey of torture, pain and sorrow illustrates a clear understanding to viewers from just one man’s viewpoint. Nevertheless, Ejiofor has finally had his breakthrough role and deserves to be an Oscar contender. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong’o makes her acting debut in an outstanding performance as female slave Petsey. Like Ejiofor, Nyong’o’s performance is a representation of gender within American slavery and her role impressively interpreted the vulnerability and innocence of women during enslavement as well as the pain, cries and pure fright.

Michael Fassbender returns for the third consecutive time with Steve McQueen. Following his previous critically acclaimed performance in Shame, Fassbender shines once again as the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps. Fassbender has portrayed cold, bitter characters in the past and this became advantageous to his role in 12 Years A Slave. He superbly reflected the cold-hearted, sinister mannerism of Epps; therefore, honestly depicting the cruelty of Caucasian plantation owners towards their slaves. In addition, Benedict Cumberbatch makes a decent appearance as William Ford, another plantation owner but more benevolent than Epps. Paul Dano also gets some screen time as Ford’s abusive and incredibly racist carpenter. Being arguably the most racist character in the entire film, Paul Dano brilliantly enhanced further realism among their treatment of black people during that period. As a result, it has become his greatest performance since There Will Be Blood or even Little Miss Sunshine.

Whether based on real-life events or an original screenplay, the cinematic representation of slavery is bound to raise curiosity and occasional controversy, especially when there’s slavery involved. 12 Years A Slave marvellously depicts to viewers how America was in the South during that period, which was enhanced further by McQueen’s superb directing, excellent performances from particularly Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o. McQueen’s latest is as energetic, drama-wise, and is not far among Schindler’s List and The Pianist in terms of expressing human drama through historical facts. Nevertheless, 12 Years A Slave may be a stomach-turning film but there is no doubt it is one of the most powerful bio-pics of this generation and will be a strong contender for Best Picture.


~ by SJMJ91 on 21/01/2014.

One Response to “REVIEW: 12 Years A Slave”

  1. Good review, Samuel. I do wonder how accurately the movie portrayed the memoir, because Mistress Ford’s behavior toward Eliza’s pain seems unbelievable. Any decent human being should be able to sympathize for a woman that has been torn away from her children, but I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised at such dehumanization.

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