Movie Review: ’12 Years a Slave’

12 Years a Slave

Directed by: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Brad Pitt

Plot: The true story of Solomon Northup, a free black American in the 1840s who is captured and forced into slavery.


For those not acquainted with Steve McQueen, he is not the late great he-man Hollywood star of such films as Bullit and The Great Escape. He is in fact a promising up and coming black director from the UK, and this is his third feature. This feature has a lot in common with his previous two, Hunger and Shame. They are collaborations with actor Michael Fassbender (who has a much smaller role this time) and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, but more importantly they are compelling, more dramatic takes on body horror where McQueen tests the physical limitations of his actors and his characters.

For HungerMichael Fassbender played a famous member of the IRA who went on a hunger strike allowing his body to waste away. In Shame, he played a man with a sexual addiction that he would satiate any possible way he could. Now, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup becomes a prisoner literally and figuratively of his own body and identity as he struggles to keep composure among so much human indecency and pain. This direction leaves very little room for dialog (although whenever it is written and performed, it is truly outstanding) allowing for actors to just sit and emote. It becomes an intoxicating experience. It has almost ruined me on movie speeches, in general. Every time I hear one, I just keep thinking they are using too many words.

12 Years a Slave

McQueen has to be careful going down these directions. though, because they can sometimes seem directionless. He is basically throwing out the book on how to tell a story. There isn’t a whole lot of “how” and “why” being answered, nor is there much resolution  in the classic sense. We usually just get an epiphany and/or a moment of tranquility. Sure, Hunger talks policy and Shame talks about childhood but neither feel like they have a specific agenda for an ending. It is much more about that character in the here and now. Not where they have been and where they could go, but those moments between moments that McQueen paints with such passion that they become all the more compelling. These movies are not really about sympathy. Sympathy’s easy, and you can do it from too great a distance. They are about empathy, and we, the audience, are forced through the same ringer as the protagonist.

There is no better moment in history than the antebellum American South to have a movie like this. I am an American, born and bred, and no matter how many times you talk about slavery and what went down, it was always ink on paper. History textbooks start and stop on the facts, and even though it is about injustice, abuse, and death, it is emotionally neutered. This is a horrible time for my country, and it is much harder to face in the form of this movie than a grade school lecture. I literally felt like my heart was ripped from chest and stomped on.

12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave is the closest to a mainstream movie as McQueen has gotten so far, and it’s not without its problems. It is still chock full of his usual style (slow pacing, very deliberate photography, strong but silent performances), but this movie was begging for a much more traditional structure. With that number 12 in the title, the movie didn’t have a good handle on the passage of time. I didn’t even notice the gray in Ejiofor’s hair until the final scene. The final scene was a bit problematic as well, considering McQueen seemed to betray his usual “moment of epiphany” ending (which was there) for an emotionally hollow epilogue tacked on to the end. There was also a couple distracting big celeb cameos from Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti, which were by coincident or not, the most talkative roles in the whole movie.

Rating: 9/10