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Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years a Slave
Oct. 18, 2013by:
9 10

PLOT: The devastating true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who, in 1853, was kidnapped from his home in Washington D.C, and sold into slavery in the south.

REVIEW: At the Toronto International Film Festival premiere of 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers and stars (he plays the small, but pivotal part of a Canadian carpenter) said something interesting. To paraphrase, basically he said it took a Brit to make the definitive American film about slavery. Granted, it's a subject that's been explored before, most recently by Quentin Tarantino in DJANGO UNCHAINED. McQueen's movie is an altogether different kind of film, in that due to it's factual basis, it's not able to indulge in the wish-fulfilment or fantasy that made DJANGO such a crowd-pleaser.

As such, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is probably the most brutal, unsparingly realistic account of slavery since ROOTS. Northup's story is a nightmare, with him being a well-respected family man who, after trusting the wrong people, wakes up to discover that he's someone's property, and that nothing can help him escape his fate. An early scene where he's inspected by Paul Giamatti's slave procurer is especially upsetting, and Ejiofor brilliantly conveys both Solomon's searing rage and absolute terror at his situation. Ejiofor is most-certainly going to find himself nominated for an Oscar for his performance here, and truth be told, I can't see how he can't win. This is the performance of a lifetime.

Like his work in HUNGER and SHAME, McQueen never shies away from the brutality of the situation. Chiwetel Ejiofor's Solomon suffers not only unimaginable physical cruelty, but what's arguably worse is the dehumanizing process of being bought and sold several times over. Ejiofor has a line early in the film where he says, I don't want to survive, I want to live. This reflects on everything Solomon manages to endure, but it's truly agonizing to watch as he gets more and more dehumanized, especially once he's bought by Michael Fassbender's fanatical cotton farmer.

In 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Fassbender is the devil, even more insidious in that- like anyone who could ever delude themselves into thinking they have the right to own another human being- he thinks he's correct in his racist beliefs. He's utterly repellent, and it's a terrifying performance. Benedict Cumberbatch's more sympathetic slaver makes an interesting counterpoint, although an interesting case can be made that in a way, he's just as bad as the more obviously evil Fassbender.

With such a great lineup of heavy-hitters, it can be easy to overlook some of the less well-known faces in the cast, but Lupita Nyong'o, as the often brutalized Patsy, arguably has the most affecting part in the whole film. I've never seen Nyong'o before this, but her performance is so good it'll make your jaw-drop, and as the film went on, every time I saw her I practically felt like crying. I don't want to give away too much about what Patsy goes through, but she'll break your heart.

By necessity, McQueen's style of film-making here seems to be a little more conventional than it was in his last two films, if only for the reason that with a story that's this important, it doesn't really need to be told in a fashion that's too elaborate. His imagery, courtesy of DP Sean Bobbitt is simple but striking, with the beauty of the southern scenery making an interesting contrast to the ugliness of the story. Hans Zimmer also provides a powerful score (surprisingly more than a little reminiscent of his work on INCEPTION) that only kicks in as needed, but adds an unbearable emotional punch to several scenes, such as Northup's initial, terrifying journey to the south.

I should warn readers that if you thought HUNGER was a tough film to watch, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is even more shocking, and to be sure, it's not an easy watch, although I'd say it's an utterly necessary one. Watching 12 YEARS A SLAVE, I couldn't shake the notion that I was watching a film that will no doubt come to be known as the definitive movie on slavery in America. It's something I think everyone should be obligated to see, as it conveys the nightmare of that period in a real, affecting, personal way. It's unsparing, but how could it be anything less? McQueen's made another unquestionably great movie, and one that after you see it, you likely won't ever be able to forget.

Extra Tidbit: Note: This review originally ran as part of JoBlo.com's TIFF 2013 coverage.
Source: JoBlo.com

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3:11PM on 09/07/2013

I will check this duo out

I caught some of "Shame" the other night on HBO. It was really fascinating and Fassbender was great/
I caught some of "Shame" the other night on HBO. It was really fascinating and Fassbender was great/
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4:07PM on 09/07/2013
lol
lol
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7:36AM on 10/18/2013
I had to give you a Thumbs Up since you downvoted yourself. I don't know why the lol was but now I can't stop chuckling.
I had to give you a Thumbs Up since you downvoted yourself. I don't know why the lol was but now I can't stop chuckling.
7:26PM on 09/07/2013
i even downvoted myself for this one :(
i even downvoted myself for this one :(
5:13PM on 09/07/2013
Movie looks amazing. A film with real raw filmmaking, emotion, and dedication. Would love for this to be a huge Oscar contender.
Movie looks amazing. A film with real raw filmmaking, emotion, and dedication. Would love for this to be a huge Oscar contender.
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5:14PM on 09/07/2013
I hope this will get Chiwetel the recognition he deserves.
I hope this will get Chiwetel the recognition he deserves.
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7:11PM on 09/07/2013

Not a movie I'll enjoy watching, but

it seems like a movie I should watch. It just won't be easy. :P

Thanks for another great review, Chris.
it seems like a movie I should watch. It just won't be easy. :P

Thanks for another great review, Chris.
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7:28PM on 09/07/2013

3/3 for McQueen?

I enjoyed Hunger, loved Shame, and have no doubt 12 Years a Slave will fall somewhere in-between. I think it's a testament of our times that it requires other filmmakers--from other countries--to tackle this dark part of America's history. I'm glad this is getting great reviews, I can't wait until I can get my ticket!
I enjoyed Hunger, loved Shame, and have no doubt 12 Years a Slave will fall somewhere in-between. I think it's a testament of our times that it requires other filmmakers--from other countries--to tackle this dark part of America's history. I'm glad this is getting great reviews, I can't wait until I can get my ticket!
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+10
8:01PM on 09/07/2013

Wait, so...

... a 9/10, and the review is nothing but praise?
... a 9/10, and the review is nothing but praise?
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10:05AM on 10/18/2013
I've seen plenty of movies that hadn't particularly anything I could complain but yet I rated it a 9/10. It just means that he didn't think it's quite a 10/10, nothing too severe obviously to mention in his review.
I've seen plenty of movies that hadn't particularly anything I could complain but yet I rated it a 9/10. It just means that he didn't think it's quite a 10/10, nothing too severe obviously to mention in his review.
6:00AM on 09/09/2013
good article but somehow every reviewer on joblo.com has problems with the ratings numbers.....ALL praise but can't handle handing out a 10.....idk but I think you guys take yourselves too seriously like any mediocre reviewer of movies does
good article but somehow every reviewer on joblo.com has problems with the ratings numbers.....ALL praise but can't handle handing out a 10.....idk but I think you guys take yourselves too seriously like any mediocre reviewer of movies does
9:10PM on 09/07/2013
9/10. High praise indeed.
9/10. High praise indeed.
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-4
9:57PM on 09/07/2013
Django Unchained is about as serious and realistic a look at slavery as The Naked Gun is a serious and realistic look at police work.

Looking forward to this. It's good to see that there are still grown ups making grown up movies left in the world.

Django Unchained is about as serious and realistic a look at slavery as The Naked Gun is a serious and realistic look at police work.

Looking forward to this. It's good to see that there are still grown ups making grown up movies left in the world.

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11:00AM on 10/18/2013
Agree 100% with smoothluv. The biggest thing though is saying that QT isn't an adult, and your so ignorant as to say an adult film has to be this certain thing. It has to fit in the box. I get some of your points, but just because his films make jokes about the hoods KKK members wore, and isn't brutal like Hunger (haven't seen 12 years yet...and I'm wondering if you have), doesn't it make it not an adult film. So don't be so arrogant that you get to decide what is really an arrogant film or
Agree 100% with smoothluv. The biggest thing though is saying that QT isn't an adult, and your so ignorant as to say an adult film has to be this certain thing. It has to fit in the box. I get some of your points, but just because his films make jokes about the hoods KKK members wore, and isn't brutal like Hunger (haven't seen 12 years yet...and I'm wondering if you have), doesn't it make it not an adult film. So don't be so arrogant that you get to decide what is really an arrogant film or not, and therefore insult my opinion on movies, but perhaps most importantly, (I don't know your race) but if your black, don't be like Spike Lee and freak out over nonsense. Sam Jackson, Kerry Washington, and Jamie Fox didn't. And as a white man, I'm not offended by the depictions of the stupid white ppl in Django. Just say you don't like his films, they are more style than substance usually. But QT never set out to make the most realistic film on slavery. He set out to make a movie that deals with some of these issues, but was mainly a cinematic treat
6:58AM on 10/18/2013
This is an absurd argument. There are elements of Django that are highly accurate, and elements that are totally inaccurate and interested in the art of film. You can't watch a movie where a man literally paints a house red with the blood of his rivals, and call that an accurate portrayal of slavery. I think Tarantino is a great filmmaker, but that doesn't mean his films don't simultaneously possess every positive attribute capable of a movie. It's like getting mad because somebody dared to say
This is an absurd argument. There are elements of Django that are highly accurate, and elements that are totally inaccurate and interested in the art of film. You can't watch a movie where a man literally paints a house red with the blood of his rivals, and call that an accurate portrayal of slavery. I think Tarantino is a great filmmaker, but that doesn't mean his films don't simultaneously possess every positive attribute capable of a movie. It's like getting mad because somebody dared to say that Inglourious Basterds took liberties with Hitler's demise. Tarantino set out to make an action movie that has some serious commentary on slavery – he didn't set out to make a serious movie about slavery.
12:46PM on 09/09/2013
Wow. Django was a pretty accurate description of what happened back in those times. I don't know where you got the naked gun comparison from. You sound like you belong in the Spike Lee crowd who has to be angry at everything.
Django was also pretty grown up. don't get mad because a white guy directed a movie about slavery and it became a success. Everything in that film was pretty accurate (even the mandingo fighting, that shit did happen in the dirty south, sadly).
You're not a Tarantino
Wow. Django was a pretty accurate description of what happened back in those times. I don't know where you got the naked gun comparison from. You sound like you belong in the Spike Lee crowd who has to be angry at everything.
Django was also pretty grown up. don't get mad because a white guy directed a movie about slavery and it became a success. Everything in that film was pretty accurate (even the mandingo fighting, that shit did happen in the dirty south, sadly).
You're not a Tarantino fan, fine whatever. You're no loss. But i'd like to see you try to make a slavery film
9:54AM on 09/09/2013
You post an opinion on the internet and you get mad because somebody disagree with you?

You have every right not to like Tarantino but comparing Django Unchained to Naked Gun is idiotic. Just because is movies aren't 100% realistic doesn't mean there are no truth in them, and it certainly doesn't mean he treats slavery as a joke.
You post an opinion on the internet and you get mad because somebody disagree with you?

You have every right not to like Tarantino but comparing Django Unchained to Naked Gun is idiotic. Just because is movies aren't 100% realistic doesn't mean there are no truth in them, and it certainly doesn't mean he treats slavery as a joke.
11:15PM on 09/08/2013
Whenever you dare criticize Tarantino there is always an acolyte ready to defend against anyone that doesn't care for his work.

I used to be a big Tarantino fan but I finally came to the realization that he is a one trick pony. His movies are cartoons inhabited by people that bare no resemblance to actual humans or real human emotions. They are simply archetypes of past films bouncing off one another. There is nothing realistic about any of it. Showing that slaves were treated inhumanly is
Whenever you dare criticize Tarantino there is always an acolyte ready to defend against anyone that doesn't care for his work.

I used to be a big Tarantino fan but I finally came to the realization that he is a one trick pony. His movies are cartoons inhabited by people that bare no resemblance to actual humans or real human emotions. They are simply archetypes of past films bouncing off one another. There is nothing realistic about any of it. Showing that slaves were treated inhumanly is hardly a revolutionary take on the subject. And, yes, he completely invented 'Mandingo fighting' which is central to the films plot. Django Unchained was just Tarantino's ripoff of the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone and the Django films that came before.

Instead of ripoff Tarantino prefers the term homage. And if you honestly believe that a black man riding through the deep south murdering people during the slavery period in American history is realism then trying to convince you otherwise is likely a waste of time.

This film offers a new and realistic, and dare I say actual human, take on the institution of slavery and that period in American history.
8:39PM on 09/08/2013
So in real life slaves weren't called "niggers", weren't bitten to death by dogs, or tortured/whipped for trying to escape? Despite the creation of Mandingo fighting, Tarantino basically put it out there that slaves were treated like shit, and they were. Just because his story isn't 100% about slavery, instead being revenge, doesn't mean he's not an adult or his film wasn't realistic.
So in real life slaves weren't called "niggers", weren't bitten to death by dogs, or tortured/whipped for trying to escape? Despite the creation of Mandingo fighting, Tarantino basically put it out there that slaves were treated like shit, and they were. Just because his story isn't 100% about slavery, instead being revenge, doesn't mean he's not an adult or his film wasn't realistic.
2:55AM on 10/18/2013

Loved (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in FOUR BROTHERS

Honestly, I had to copy/paste his name. Cant pronounce it, don't even wana try and spell it. But good on him for keeping his real name. Great Actor.
Honestly, I had to copy/paste his name. Cant pronounce it, don't even wana try and spell it. But good on him for keeping his real name. Great Actor.
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4:16AM on 10/18/2013
i hope this will get Chiwetel Ejiofor the recognition he deserves, I've been a big fan since Children of Men. What I really hope is this exposure makes Marvel cast him as The Black Panther. He has been my top choice for the superhero since I saw him in Children of Men.

Look forward to seeing this, I'm hating 2013 so far with only a top 3 of the year... And it's the last half of October I'm going to have to watch a lot of films this November and December in hopes redemption for the rest of
i hope this will get Chiwetel Ejiofor the recognition he deserves, I've been a big fan since Children of Men. What I really hope is this exposure makes Marvel cast him as The Black Panther. He has been my top choice for the superhero since I saw him in Children of Men.

Look forward to seeing this, I'm hating 2013 so far with only a top 3 of the year... And it's the last half of October I'm going to have to watch a lot of films this November and December in hopes redemption for the rest of the crappy year.
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7:03AM on 10/18/2013

I'm sorry

"As such, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is probably the most brutal, unsparingly realistic account of slavery since ROOTS." Did you get this off of promotional material? Have you seen ROOTS recently? It's a pretty soft-pedaled, made-for-television account of slavery. ROOTS has some great performances and was made but people who understood the importance of network television tackling the subject, but 12 Years a Slave goes way beyond ROOTS. 12 Years a Slave is the most brutal film made about slavery since -
"As such, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is probably the most brutal, unsparingly realistic account of slavery since ROOTS." Did you get this off of promotional material? Have you seen ROOTS recently? It's a pretty soft-pedaled, made-for-television account of slavery. ROOTS has some great performances and was made but people who understood the importance of network television tackling the subject, but 12 Years a Slave goes way beyond ROOTS. 12 Years a Slave is the most brutal film made about slavery since - ever.
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2:29PM on 10/18/2013
Ever read the book Roots? And for it's era, Roots the Miniseries was daring.
Ever read the book Roots? And for it's era, Roots the Miniseries was daring.
9:54AM on 10/18/2013
Is this payback for Braveheart?
Is this payback for Braveheart?
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7:18AM on 11/07/2013

Shaking just thinking about it.

I saw this today- I know i'm a little late to the party- and I was crying by the end, shaking with fury through most of the running time and feel haunted nearly 24 hours later.
I saw this today- I know i'm a little late to the party- and I was crying by the end, shaking with fury through most of the running time and feel haunted nearly 24 hours later.
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