Movie Review: "12 Years a Slave"
Length: 133 minutes
Release Date: October 18, 2013
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Genre: Biography, History, Drama
Stars: 4 out of 5
Director Steve McQueen is not one to shy away from difficult topics. In his most recent film, he continues that trend by tackling one of the toughest issues in American history. In "12 Years a Slave," McQueen explores the true story of an African-American New Yorker in the pre-Civil War era. Harrowing, heartrending, and at times brutal, "12 Years a Slave" offers the kind of intense experience that might lead viewers to remind each other that "it's just a movie." The power of McQueen's film lies in the fact that it's not just a movie. The horror doesn't depend on CGI monsters or urban legends. McQueen has directed a horror movie about the cruelty of the human heart.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives a contented and productive life in New York. He has a wife (Kelsey Scott) and a family. Solomon is also a talented musician, wielding a violin with virtuosity. He has been a free man since birth. Well-educated and independent, Solomon treasures his freedom. Although the United States in 1841 might not be the most welcoming atmosphere for an African-American family, the Northups are happy. However, as the title might suggest, Solomon's beloved independence has a time limit.
One fateful day, Solomon's family leaves town on business. Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) waste little time in approaching Solomon with a tempting offer. They'd like him to play his violin as part of their traveling circus. Seeing a way to earn some money and show off his musical talents, Solomon readily agrees. What he cannot realize is that Brown and Hamilton are not who they say they are. As soon as they have a chance, the two men drug Solomon and sell him into slavery.
When Solomon wakes up, he has to grapple with the dawning horror of what has happened. His entire former identity is gone, leaving Solomon at the mercy of people who view him as no better than an animal. Solomon initially fights against his captors, insisting that he is a free man and has legal rights and privileges. However, Solomon does not have the papers that prove his status as a free man. His fellow slaves warn Solomon that fighting back against his captors will not end well.
Solomon has to learn how to swallow his pride and hide his intelligence and stubbornness. If he wants to survive, he has to play the role his captors want him to play. It's not easy for him to ignore his pride and his instinct for self-preservation. After living his entire life as a free man, Solomon resists the humiliations and cruelties he must now endure. When a particularly sadistic overseer (Paul Dano) makes Solomon's life a living hell, Solomon eventually snaps and attacks the man. This is the kind of mistake he must slowly and painfully learn to avoid.
During Solomon's years in slavery, he encounters others who are suffering just as much as he is. Some of them are suffering even more. The film has a strong supporting cast, including Michael Fassbender as a man who uses religion as a cover for his sins and Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave owner with a conflicted conscience. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is convincing as a young woman who faces persecution from many different sides.
Part of the horror of "12 Years a Slave" is watching Solomon eventually lose his spark and give in to his captors' abuses. In 2012, Quentin Tarantino directed another hard-hitting film about America's history of slavery. This movie had a more shocking and cathartic ending. After enduring unspeakable horrors, Tarantino's protagonist opens fire, turning the movie into a revenge fantasy. McQueen's movie is far more realistic and restrained. This is not a reimagining of slavery. The script follows Northup's own account. It's a biopic without a satisfying ending. Instead, like reality, "12 Years a Slave" can feel unforgiving and unfair.
The movie's strength comes through the perseverance of the protagonist. Every viewer will probably have a moment of wondering what it would be like to wake up in such a brutally different world, without freedom or dignity. Solomon Northup actually lived out this horrifying scenario and managed to survive with his mind, body, and heart intact.
Ejiofor turns in a remarkable and nuanced performance as Solomon. Viewers cannot help but identify with his story. While McQueen's movie is undeniably grim, it ultimately tells a story of incredible courage and endurance. This is not a feel-good movie or an easy viewing experience. The levels of violence and abuse may scare some viewers away. However, "12 Years a Slave" is an important and unflinching exploration of a very tough subject.