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’12 Years a Slave’ Movie Review – Can’t match the intensity of McQueen’s first two features

’12 Years a Slave’ Movie Review – Can’t match the intensity of McQueen’s first two features

Welcome to our “12 Years a Slave” Reviews.

Review #1

12 Years a Slave

Written by John Ridley

Directed by Steve McQueen

USA, 2013

With Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen crafted two highly divergent, yet equally distinctive character studies of men whose respective physical existences are defined by extremity. Hunger’s Bobby Sands stays true to his political convictions in the face of death by refusing all sustenance; Shame‘s Brandon feels he has no choice but to indulge every one of his body’s countless sexual whims, at the expense of any and all honest interpersonal connection. With 12 Years a Slave, McQueen shifts thematic gears somewhat, while staying in his typically anguished wheelhouse. Where Hunger and Shame honed in on men whose state of existence is, to a certain degree, a matter of choice or internal imperative, 12 Years a Slave‘s Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a blameless victim of a fiercely racist system that seeks to tear away his humanity and identity forever. The increased externalization of the forces at work in 12 Years a Slave, not to mention the greatly widened scope, sometimes obscures McQueen’s gifts.
Based on Northup’s autobiography of the same name, 12 Years a Slave opens with Northup a free man in Saratoga, NY, a violinist living happily with his wife and two children. Before long, he’s been tricked into captivity and sold at auction in Louisiana to a plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems to take a liking to him, much to the chagrin of one of his crueller employees (Paul Dano). Later, Northup is passed to another master, Edwin Epps (returning McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender), who serves as the film’s primary antagonist. Unshakeable, brutal, and fiercely superstitious, Epps manages to make Northup’s life even more miserable, particularly when Epps takes a shine to a particularly hardworking young slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a union that has dire consequences.
Despite the title, and McQueen’s previous history of doggedly single-minded character studies, 12 Years a Slave finds time for a dozen or so peripheral characters, most of whom are present to act as too-neat counterpoints to Northup’s stubborn idealist streak. Very brief appearances by familiar faces (Michael Kenneth Williams, Paul Giamatti) are distracting, but not nearly as destabilising as a late-film appearance by co-producer Brad Pitt as a Christlike abolitionist from Canada. It’s a stunningly misguided decision on several levels.

12 Years a Slave

The diffuse focus – which also short-sells some supporting players, like Alfre Woodward’s spirited Mistress – makes 12 Years a Slave paradoxically less intense and demanding than its predecessors, when the subject matter begs for McQueen’s startling flair for depictions of physical degradation. Only a prolonged sequence in which Northup is nearly hanged, only to be left for hours to survive on his tiptoes in the mud, sufficiently repels viewers, thereby viscerally evoking the abominable conditions that made Northup’s terrible fate possible. In that scene, and select other moments, McQueen’s almost perverse sense of patience manages to creep in, but for most of the runtime, John Ridley’s pedestrian screenplay mutes the proceedings.

It also mutes the potential impact of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance. A sterling usually-supporting player long overdue for a showcase, Ejiofor is an ideal fit for Northup, convincingly cowed by his fate while being unable to completely hide his compassion and intelligence for very long. While the film’s closing moments can’t help but be quietly devastating, given the inevitable circumstances, there’s still a distinct sense that 12 Years a Slave represents a missed opportunity in terms of telling Northup’s story in the most effective manner possible. A tale this incredible, a fate this cruel, should produce far greater inner tumult and aesthetic discord; instead, it winds up feeling like an only slightly-auteuristic take on a well-worn cinematic form.- Simon Howell

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Review #2

British artist-turned-film-director Steve McQueen has said in interviews that he wanted to make a movie about slavery in America for some time; he was just searching for the right story. He’s found it in 12 Years a Slave, the 1853 book by Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was kidnapped out of his career as a successful violinist and sold into bondage.

In the film, Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is first owned by the benevolent William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but spends the lion’s share of the film as the property of the sadistic “breaker” Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The screenplay by John Ridley (a former television writer and film critic who wrote the underrated movies Red Tails and Undercover Brother) understands that it’s not merely the violence or the master’s rape of the slave women that makes slavery horrific; it is the utter annihilation of the potential of a person. Slavery is a self-fulfilling terror designed to take a human being, cripple his ability to socialize and educate himself until he is completely dependent upon a racist system, and use that dependence to justify the racism.

Ejiofor, in his unbelievable performance, understands this like no actor ever has. There are tears and agony, which he does well, but this role is about much more. He takes the film to a higher plane with his tiny, yet momentous, betrayals of self and others. From the way that Solomon tucks his head and forces himself to submit, to every time he has to abandon his fellow slaves to ensure his survival, Ejiofor will take your heart in his hands again and again only to utterly break it.

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Although many of the slavers’ words in this picture are enforced by the barrel of a gun, not one bullet is ever fired, since shooting a slave to death is vandalizing the slave owner’s property. Thus, while they’re obviously playing horrible characters, it’s worth commending the white actors in this film for the way they commit to the brutal violence, delivering even a simple slap in the face as though it were a pistol shot. This goes double for actors such as Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti, who are less physically imposing than Ejiofor. In the free world, they would never strike a larger man so readily; thus, their commitment goes far to illustrate that Solomon is no longer in the free world.

McQueen has masterful compositions, no doubt a gift from his career as a visual artist. However, his real mastery is shown with his sense of timing. Where inferior films might need a line of on-the-nose dialogue to explain what is going on in a mostly slient scene, McQueen says everything with his perfectly paced shots and expertly timed cuts. The long, brutal whipping of a female slave near the end of the film withholds the actual damage until the moment at which it reveals the most about every character in the scene – not just Northrup but the slave owner and his wife as well.

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There is a place in cinema for films like Glory and Amistad and Lincoln, uplifting films that provide a happy ending against slavery but do not wish to alienate audiences with extensive meditations on the horror itself. What Hollywood has lacked until now is a Schindler’s List for slavery: a film that will not take a blind eye from the brutality and will show how difficult it is to overcome such an institutional evil. 12 Years a Slave is deeply moving, but it does not move a person toward rage or sorrow – unique among American films on this subject, it demands simply an ever-increasing commitment: never again.

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Review #3

In 1853, Solomon Northup published his memoir 12 Years A Slave,  a story of how a black man born free in New York was kidnapped, sold into slavery, and for a dozen years worked on various plantations around Louisiana just before the American Civil War. Acclaimed British artist-turned-filmmaker Steve McQueen has now brought this extraordinary tale to the big screen, following his physically harrowing films Hunger and Shame, in what is more than a mere film but a cultural milestone in the representation of slavery, a major work that is spearing in its intensity, incandescent in its soul.

In what seems certain to be an Oscar-worthy performance, Chiwetel Ejiofor is Northup, a musician who foolishly embarks on a tour with two performers (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) while his wife and children relocate for her job for a few months. Awakening one morning after getting drunk or possibly being drugged, he finds himself in chains, the property of two brutal slavemasters who ignore his pleas of clemency, beat him, and shatter his spirit, before transporting him to Louisiana to become the property of the faintly benevolent plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). After falling afoul of the cruel gangmaster John Tibeats (Paul Dano) Solomon is sold again to a truly horrendous excuse of a human being, the whiskey-soured Edwin Epps (a sulphurous Michael Fassbender). The horror of Solomon’s situation descends into unbearable plateaus of misery and suffering, compounded thanks to Epps’ wife Mary (a wraithful Sarah Paulson), a jealous cuckold who inflicts her cruelty onto her property with unconscionable inhumanity.

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Certain scenes of this overwhelming, immensely powerful film cannot be forgotten: the images of naked slaves being considered and appraised in contrast to the luxurious decor and surroundings of the Louisiana gentry; or a centrepiece single long-take (one of McQueen’s trademark flourishes) of Solomon struggling for purchase in the mud with a noose circled around his fragile neck. 12 Years A Slave is unquestionably one of the most disturbing texts yet crafted that examines this horrendous chapter in US and European history, a Biblical recital simmering with a brimstone-tinged deep South gumbo. Fassbender avoids the single-note take of evil with his complex take on Epps, a creature so utterly divorced from notions of equality and mercy that Brad Pitt’s Abolitionist’s assertion that he must answer for his crimes in the great hereafter is simply incomprehensible to him. Across the board, the performances are incendiary and almighty, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o may well find herself with a golden statuette come February as the heartbreaking Patsey, Epps’ object of brutal affection on the plantation.

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McQueen brings forth his fascination with the twilight gulfs between the physical body and our seething spirits, the enslaved shells brimming with a spiritual charge. Given the grievous subject matter, the casually distressing violence is restrained and controlled, making one crescendo that approaches with the certainty of a distant cyclone all the more stomach-curdling and horrifying when it finally erupts, in one of the most grueling and draining scenes of recent memory. Hans Zimmer’s industrial, clanking score reinforces the sense of this historical blight as a commerce-driven activity, a status quo riveted with all the faceless cruelty of the free market, before yielding to soaring, lyrical overtures, as resolute tears stream down Solomon’s incorrigibly etched face. 12 Years A Slave is a milestone work, maybe a masterpiece despite some obsequious yielding to Hollywood conventions in its closing moments,  a testament to our shared shame and the human capacity of endurance.

— John McEntee