12 Years a Slave (2013). A searing, harrowing but ultimately rewarding slavery drama.

image still ejiofor fassbender years slave

Film review, by Jason Day, of 12 Years a Slave, the drama about the true story of Soloman Northup a free black man in 19th Century America who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and directed by Steve McQueen.


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Based on his autobiography, written in 1853, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a successful musician in upmarket New York in 1841 with a beautiful wife and two children. That he is black is not an issue to the majority of his fellow New Yorkers. Leaving on a whim for a brief tour with a circus company, he is drugged by his employers and sold into slavery. The next 12 years of his life are marked by brutality and hard work as he is sold to a pious but fair man (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then a violent, unpredictable racist (Michael Fassbender) and his vicious wife (Sarah Paulson).

Review, by Jason Dayimage poster 12 years slave

Director McQueen (Hunger, Shame) is well on his way to creating a new sub-genre of dramatic films, the ‘brutalist epic’, given the intensity he invest in his products. After prison starvation and sex addiction he tackles what is almost a taboo subject in mainstream American cinema, with just as much vigour and wincingly raw staging as his first two movies. There is no pussy-footing around here, indeed no other approach to this period in our history would do, so hold on to your seats as McQueen gives you both barrels and then some.

There has been some critical talk about the factual accuracy of the film. For instance, in one early scene a failed rebellion on a ship sees a sailor stab a slave to death, a detail that was not in Northup’s book. But to quibble over such details is to detract from the major achievement this is as a film; film-makers frequently add to and remove from adaptations of books for a variety of reasons.

Where McQueen and writer Ridley do tend to fall down at times is with their focus on what seems at first viewing to be some crude, one-dimensional characterisations. Some of the white ‘slavers’ come across as as single mass of psychotically unhinged, lecherous and wholly unprincipled beasts. Of course, we are dealing with real people whom Solomon interacted with and slave owners were not generally noted for their altruism and refinement.

Still, there are subtle shades within them.Cumberbatch as Master Ford is seemingly beneficent and offers a comparatively ‘good life’, but still lets beatings and lynchings happen and sells Northup to a known violent man whom he refers to as a ‘nigger breaker’.

As this man, Fassbender excels someone whose view of his slaves as property is even extended to the weight of cotton each is able to pick on a daily basis, even referring to them as such. Master Epps is in sexual thrall to the young woman Patsey (Nyong’o), his cotton ‘Queen’ who can pick more than any of the men. By day he strokes her neck gently and admonishes her money earning virtues, by night he rapes her on pile of wood. Unable to flog her, he leaves her instead at the mercy of his jealous wife (Paulson). McQueen does not need to show us what Mistress Epps does, the scars on Patsey’s face register these rages as the film progresses.

image fassbender ejiofor years slave

Samuel Bass (Pitt; and who else would play the hero in a film that Pitt is producing?) is the only false sounding note. He is a cultured Canadian who berates Fassbender for the way treats his slaves with some fine words that none the less sound like they were plucked directly from an academic article written in the modern day.

A better and far more interesting character can be found in Mistress Shaw (Woodard), a free slave who is married to another white plantation owner. Solomon enquires why she remains married to a man who is well-known for being persistently unfaithful to her. Her deliciously worded response about sticking with the devil rather than face God knows what in the fields like Patsey, whom she invites around the tea (the sole high-point in this forlorn girl’s life) is the best dialogue in the film, delivered with seductive self-satisfaction from this persuasive actress.

Nyong’o may puts in the most heart-wrenching and memorable turn. She leaves no tear left unformed and we see her progress from a vibrant young woman assailed and assaulted from all sides (including Solomon himself) to a broken shadow of her former self begging for release from her terrifying existence.  This is her first feature length film and this is a perfectly judged show of a truly indomitable spirit.

Ejiofor’s measured, mannered and intelligent lead has many layers of gravitas and meaning. Solomon has a ferocious will to live as a free man in a greatly unequal world but is also cunning enough to know he has to adjust to his new life by ‘dumbing down’, shedding his usual pattern of speech and lying about his literacy skills.

This is not a showy performance and it’s the smaller things you remember most about Northup; the intimate close-ups of him and his wife in bed, washing a young boy and beseeching him to be quiet, placating Master Epps with whispered tones when his plan to escape is rumbled. When he burns the letter he has painstakingly written with blackberry juice as ink, he watches with and cries as the embers slowly fade away like his hope of rescue. Northup could not have asked for a better man to portray him.

McQueen handles this harsh subject matter in as hard and unremittingly painful way as possible. This is winning, but challenging viewing. His camera lingers statically on some key moments: during the opening scenes, the camera slowly makes its way through sugar canes, the plants drape over and fill the screen, as they soon will the slaves lives. Patsey is whipped to within an inch of her  life, the flesh literally being flayed from her body. As Solomon is sold by Giamatti’s slave trader the slaves are displayed as if clothes are being modelled for rich department store patrons. A woman continually sobs and pleads in the background for her children not to be taken away from her. When Solomon is lynched for beating white Dano, Master Ford’s overseer comes to the rescue, but crucially leaves him hanging. The day slowly continues at a dream-like pace, children laugh and play in the background and everyone pretends not to notice a man slowly being strangled to death, choking and spluttering.

In retrospect, making his audience so uncomfortable, by making them stare head on for protracted moments at these events, was the only way to make people sit up and take notice of such a film. He deserves all the plaudits he is receiving for making such a brave piece.

Cast & Credits

Producers: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Brad Pitt, Bill Pohlad.
Writer: John Ridley.
Camera: Sean Bobbitt.
Music: Hans Zimmer.
Sets: Adam Stockhausen.

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul  Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Liza J. Bennett.


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