Movie review: 12 Years A Slave directed by Steve McQueen


The movie is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853.

Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a skilled fiddle-player and a family man, was abducted in 1841. A pair of traveling showmen lured him from his home, wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York, with the promise of fast money in return for playing the violin in a circus. Even though Northup was officially a freeman (so a son of a freed slave, born in a state which abolished slavery) they drugged and sold him to a slave pen in Washington, D.C. as if they caught him in an African jungle.

Solomon was given a new name – ‘Platt’ – and was robbed of every privilege he thought he’d possessed as a human being. He quickly learned that any assertions of his true identity or his education only could get him tortured or even killed – the masters wanted their slaves dumb, obedient and strong. Sold like an animal from one owner to another, flogged, beaten and humiliated, he witnessed first-hand the ugly brutality of slavery. It took Solomon twelve years to find freedom. He was the lucky one – after a while he met a decent white man, a Canadian carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt), who, despite very real personal danger, alerted Solomon’s friends from Saratoga, enabling them to find him and deliver freeing papers.

My impressions:

I know, I know, it is an Oscar-winning, universally-acclaimed and well-praised movie. An movie dealing with Important Issues which always should be capitalized. It enjoys a truly flawless rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and on Metacritic. That’s why I might sound overly critical, a bit stupid or even absurdly conceited (but hey, my blog my review, right?) when I say: ‘yes, I expected something more impressive, no, I didn’t like it very much and yes, I think it could have been done way better’. The source material, after all, was such a juicy morsel of a story as it dealt with a shameful and disgusting practice – a state-approved and, to some extent, church-approved slavery. An individual against the system fighting for his freedom.

What was my problem, then? When, in the last scene, after more than a decade of hard labor and isolation, Solomon returned home I thought: it is the very point I’d wish this movie to start. Unfortunately the whole story was told in a classic, linear way. I don’t say that the classic way is always bad and boring because it clearly has its advantages; perhaps 12 Years A Slave matched well the narrative of Northup himself (I don’t know, I haven’t read the book) but I found the film a bit too boring and predictable. What’s more, one very important aspect wasn’t explored by the director almost at all – I mean here the fact that Northup failed to bring any of men who’d sold/enslaved him to justice. The trials were just mentioned very casually before the final credits, nothing more than a few sentences, and it actually made me gasp because, I suppose such a horrible miscarriage of justice would be a far more acidic and important criticism of the slavery as America’s original sin than any scenes showing flogging, hanging or rape. After all with physical violence, you can put all the blame on one or several psychotic individuals; the skewed trials, however, would show how wrong the whole system was. It would be something definitely more ominous and fascinating from my point of view.

The movie wasn’t abysmal, of course, far from it. McQueen was particularly good at penetrating the specific perniciousness of Southern slavery. In antiquity, for example, if you became a slave, it was due to your bad luck or the wrath of gods – no slaveholder needed to pretend his slaves were less than human in order to justify keeping them. But the American South’s nouveaux aristocrats aped the appearance of European royalty and pretended to themselves and the world outside that they were Real Christians, reading the Bible to those black, lesser beings they happened to own, educating them in fact, often ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’- style. The result of this pretense was a horrible, hypocritical perversion that bred sadism and decadence.

Critics have proclaimed Michael ­Fassbender’s performance as Edwin Epps, the second owner of Solomon and a major psycho baddie, an incredible creation, and I quite agree with that assessment. Fassbender was perfect as a broken alcoholic and an abusive sadist, insanely jealous of his own slave girl, Patsey(Lupita Nyong’o) , and despising himself and everybody around him for it. As the epitome of the ‘bad’ slave owner, Epps took part in the worst, most disgusting scenes of the whole movie which almost bordered violence porn. In one such a scene Patsey , a fragile, diminutive woman, was mercilessly stripped, tied to a post and whipped, initially by Solomon, forced to do it by a revolver put to his head, and then by Epps himself, until “meat and blood flow equally”. I warn you, it was a horrible scene, portrayed with unblinking explicitness – if you can’t bear reading about it you most certainly will have a problem while watching it; I had. I suppose McQueen wanted to rub noses of the audience in degenerate brutality and the result, at least for me, was disgusting. I suppose the evils of slavery could have been exposed in a more tasteful (but still cutting) way.

Final verdict:

Perhaps Steve McQueen deserves every gong going for his unflinching portrayal of slavery – undoubtedly one of the darker and dirtier practices in the history of the US of A and humanity at large. However, in my very humble opinion, if his movie had been edgier, more incisive and less violent it would have had a stronger impact, at least in my case. Physical violence is nothing compared to the enslavement of mind. Sadistic criminals are bad but a system that doesn’t condemn their practices and doesn’t defend their victims is even worse.

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10 Responses to Movie review: 12 Years A Slave directed by Steve McQueen

  1. blodeuedd says:

    Now I kind of do not wanna see it

  2. Pingback: 12 Years a Slave | Chewy Reviews

  3. heidenkind says:

    I haven’t seen it, but I’ve heard some comments about how it’s the type of movie that makes white people feel noble about seeing it. You know, that whole white guilt thing. If they did include the court scenes, that might hit too close to home–after all, to a certain extent the US is still institutionalized to punish black people for existing and let white people slide for criminal acts against them, as recent court cases demonstrate.

    This is probably one I’ll see eventually but I’m not exactly looking forward to it.

    • I’ve heard that ‘white people’s guilt’ argument (or rather read about it) and I suppose it really might have been the main reason this movie – good but hardly brilliant- got the main award.

      If they did include the court scenes, that might hit too close to home

      Definitely. Still it’s a pity the director, not an Amercian citizen after all, wasn’t brave enough to include it.

      I’m not exactly looking forward to it.

      I really understand why. It is not a comfortable movie to watch.

  4. rameau says:

    I haven’t seen it yet, but I plan to. I’m sure you’re right that the film would be better if the torture porn would be scaled back, but at the same time I understand the need to show the absolute brutality that existed. Only after historical facts have been acknowledged and widely accepted, can the subtlety become an influential shorthand in all media.

    • Everybody has their own thresholds when it comes to violence, sex, pain etc. shown in a movie. I admit my own tolerance was almost exceeded and I don’t appreciate that. I am aware that American slavery was no picnic but you don’t have to rub my nose in gore in order to drive your point home.

  5. CMrok93 says:

    Sort of felt like the hype for this movie was maybe a bit too overcooked, but you can’t question its impact on whomever watches it. That’s for sure. Good review.

    • Thanks!
      I am not questioning its impact, far from it,I am just presenting my personal view. It is undoubtedly an important movie, not especially nice to watch, but it shows just one part of the story.

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