Oscar Nominations 6: 12 Years A Slave Review

A Dime A Dozen

By Adam Sturrock

12 Years a Slave (2013)

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: John Ridley

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano

Length: 134mins

The atrocities and injustice of the slavery period in America’s history still create pain, even hundreds of years on in both reality and in cinema. Lincoln was lauded for its performances from Daniel Day Lewis but in Steve McQueen’s new film, 12 Years A Slave, arguably the biggest character in the film is the camera work. A powerful, emotional tale about fighting back against despair, Chiwetel Ejiofor is a sterling lead amongst a plethora of incredible actors.

12 Years a Slave was a biopic of sorts, based on the story of Solomon Northup, a prosperous and educated violinist who was drugged and sold into slavery. What is often suggested in history is that people that were enslaved were mainly working to lower middle class – they couldn’t read or write – but this was obviously not the case with Northup. With no paperwork to prove who he was, Solomon was forced to endure a torrid time away from his young family for 12 years hence the title.

Unlike most pre-civil war dramas, Steve McQueen has gone about making you feel the torturous injustice caused upon black families and people in the most bare manner possible. Where most camera shots will suggest what is happening on camera to spare the audience some comfort, McQueen offers no respite; shots of a person hanging by a noose will linger for minutes at a time with little music to hide what is happening. What we see is often extremely uncomfortable to watch, but this is a subject matter that should not be seen with comfort so acknowledgement must be made to McQueen’s uncompromising take on the matter. It is noted that the music in the film is sparse and predominately most of the music comes from the black slaves working in the fields or their slavers having parties; the singing is often desolate and isolated  from their master’s ears as is usually the case during that period.

With such a terrific ensemble as the cast list it must be noted that arguably, the biggest performers are the least known of the lot: Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. Populated mainly by a British cast, the newcomers hold their own as the enslaved Northup and Patsey, an esteemed cotton picker who is hated by her masters, including the deliciously cruel mistress played by Sarah Paulson. The former of the two is heartrenchingly emotional and often Northup’s speech breaks into pastoral rhetoric when passionately dismissing  his enslaved future. The story obviously isn’t an optimistic fairy tale and is often bleak in its storytelling; in the end, we still don’t know at what age Northup died and his enslavers were never brought to justice for the crime that they had caused.

This film may not be for everyone; it lasts just over two hours long but it feels far longer than the actual time. The film is often populated by minutes of dead noise and intense staring into the distance so there is a possibility of a casual viewer not being able to enjoy this intense film.

Regardless, this uncompromising tale of slavery will certainly be up there with the great pre-civil war dramas. It certainly isn’t a jovial romp like The Wolf Of Walstreet or a CGI epic like Gravity, but is this a contender for the big gong? Certainly.

What did you guys think of the film? Let me know in the comment section below.


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