’12 Years a Slave’

Chiwetel Ejiofor graps rail and gazes into bleak future“12 Years a Slave” is slavery porn. This startling and very tough film by British director Steve McQueen drags a viewer into the antebellum American South to experience slavery in all its barbarism and inhumanity.

It’s no-holds-barred filmmaking. As such, the challenging movie makes a convincing and long overdue corrective to such American movie-classic lies as “Gone With the Wind” and “Birth of a Nation.” Yet in its enthusiastic depiction of total degradation of human beings the movie lacks any soul.

McQueen, whose previous films, “Hunger” and “Shame,” mark him an aesthetic artist concerned with the trials and indignities a body can suffer with only scant interest in psychology, searches for images and sounds to convey an atmosphere of total privation.

But he looks for almost none to convey his main character’s inner life either as a free man (very briefly) or 12 years a slave. Instead he is content to present an educational horror show albeit a highly effective one.

Which is a pity since McQueen chanced upon a great story. Or rather his wife did when she discovered a memoir by Solomon Northup published in 1853. “12 Years a Slave,” mostly out of print in the 20th century, was restored in 1968 but it’s doubtful many people have read it.

Michael Fassbender sits on planatation mansion porch to watch his slavesIn the book a free black man from upstate New York, a violinist and father of three, describes his kidnapping in 1841 and subsequent sale into slavery and struggle on cruel Louisiana plantations to stay alive in the faint hope of being reunited with his family.

This goes counter to the conventional slave narrative, which begins in Africa or with birth on a Southern plantation. In fact, thousands of free blacks suffered similar fates following the passage of a federal law banning the importation of slaves in 1808. With the reduction of the slave work force, their value increased greatly for greedy slave traders.

McQueen is twice lucky in his casting of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon. For he is an actor who can do so very much with his eyes. Which is often necessary since keeping quiet — even hiding his ability to read and write — is the only way for a slave to survive brutal beatings or death.

Ejiofor’s eyes registers the terror and incomprehension of the kidnapping, the shocks of regular beatings, the sight of abominations visited upon fellow slaves and the racist taunts of white overseers.

An audience suffers similar shocks. McQueen and his writer John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Red Tails”) dig deeply into historical research into the “peculiar” American institution of slavery for their atrocities. I have no doubt even the whips used in the movie are authentic to the era.

The movie is designed to parade before the camera just about every degradation the institution embraced — rapes, torture, beatings, lynchings, separation of families and other indignities thrown repeatedly by plantation owners and overseers at their “property.”

12 Year's Chiwetel Ejiofor and fellow slaves stare at cooking potMichael Fassbender plays the savage slave owner Edwin Epps as a bitter and drunken degenerate whose fury is all too easily provoked by his wife (Sarah Paulson). He then takes his anger out on his slaves. Yet the director and writer show no interest in probing the man to see what drives his fury or causes his pathology.

Paul Dano is similarly asked to flagrantly overplay a repulsive white-trash carpenter intent on proving his superiority to the black man. In smaller roles, slavers, traders and conmen appear as venal, foul, treacherous and vile.

All completely accurate to the era and the institution, you understand. Yet crowded into a 134-minute film, where one beating makes the point but the director prefers three or four, the movie descends into melodrama and obviousness.

There is never a moment to stand back and investigate the internal and philosophical challenges Solomon faces in his determination to come out alive.

Instead the film constantly looks not at its hero but its audience: What would you have done in this situation? How would you react?

12 Years' Benedict Cumberbatch stands between Chiwetel Ejiofor and angry Paul DanoThen Brad Pitt (one of the film’s producers) arrives in the scene, playing an itinerant Canadian carpenter hired to build a dwelling on Epps’ plantation. In an on-the-money speech he gets to denounce slavery to Epps and say all the things you’ve been thinking all along.

His character thus acts as an emotional valve to let some audience anger and frustration leak away before he can deliver Solomon’s salvation. (His character sent letters to family and friends back in New England alerting them to Solomon’s enslavement.)

Filming at a Louisiana location very near where the real Northup spent his years in bondage, McQueen doesn’t even come as close as Tarantino in “Django Unchained” to capturing the true grit of antebellum plantation. The fault may lie in his preference for imagery over psychology.

The loveliness of the Spanish-moss draped plantation, its bayous, rolling fields and woods deliberately plays against the human tragedy of each passing day.

With an aural design of crickets chirping, wind blowing and whips cracking, along with one of the more restrained Hams Zimmer scores in a while, McQueen seems to want to taunt his audience with the bucolic wonder of the Old South.

But these aesthetic abstractions neither highlight nor explain the spirit of Solomon’s steady resolve to, as he puts it, not only survive but to live. He never quite becomes the hero of his own story as well he should.

A disquieting undertone has accompanied the initial press reaction to the film, which premiered at Telluride, and has increased in subsequent news stories prior to the theatrical rollout by Fox Searchlight.

This is the tandem assertion that American movies and artists have shied away from dealing directly with our own holocaust and with race relations in general so it took a foreigner to do so.

I think this is false on both counts. While it’s true Hollywood and indie filmmakers have generally favored stories about the Civil War over those dealing directly with slavery — exceptions would be “Amistad” and “Beloved” along with Tarantino’s film — this has to do with the peculiar nature of movies and nothing to do with American artists.

Writers, who do not need corporate backing to create their art, have long dealt with slavery and race going back to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass and Northup himself. The eras of Reconstruction and Jim Crow saw the emergence of Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and James Weldon Johnson.

To make this argument you must similarly ignore writings ranging from that of Charles W. Chestnut and Langston Hughes to Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin. The list goes on.

The problem when it comes to film though is the need to gain financing (invariably white). “12 Years” got past the studio gates, I believe, not in spite of but because of its “foreignness.”

McQueen brings with him the imprimatur of an artist, an internationally exhibited painter who has made three films exploring the extremes of the human condition to gain a following in art cinemas.

It’s hard to imagine how an American director bringing this very script to Fox Searchlight or any other studio classics division, say a Spike Lee or George Tillman Jr., would have fared. Not well, I suspect.

“12 Years” is packaged as an “art” film and indeed is pretty much being promoted as such. The director and most of the lead actors are foreign, not American, perhaps with the presumption that audiences will more readily accept the film’s savagery within an international context.

Just look at the cast and crew bios: McQueen, English-born artist, divides his time between Amsterdam and London; Ejiofor, a veteran of the British stage, screen and television; Fassbender, born in Germany and raised in Ireland; Benedict Cumberbatch (who plays Solomon’s first and most benevolent owner), also a vet of the British stage. Lupita Nyong’o (who plays the slave Patsy, object of Epps’ sexual fixations), Mexican-born and Kenyan-raised.

Oh sure, Americans such as Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard play key roles but even they are such stalwarts of independent cinema that this only enhances “12 Years'” art-film sensibility.

How many other American filmmakers, black or white, have dreamed of similar projects only for them to die in development? Or never even gotten that far? I’m asking; I don’t know.

Will this film become a starting point for an honest dialogue in America about race, as some critics and commentators suggest? Let’s hope so. It does confront slavery and all its dreadful operations head on. It minces no words nor avoids any images.

But it also refuses to transcend the gruesome particulars of slavery. Nor does it with a few exceptional moments say much about the human spirit.


Opens: October 18, 2013 (Fox Searchlight)
Production companies: River Road, Plan B, New Regency
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Based on the memoir by: Solomon Northup and David Wilson
Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas
Executive producers: Tessa Ross, John Ridley
Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt
Production designer: Adam Stockhausen
Music: Hans Zimmer
Costume designer: Patricia Norris
Editor: Joe Walker
R rating, 134 minutes


Comments

  1. steve barr says

    i love a critic who stands allmost alone . i loved heavens gate . i liked blade runner the moment i saw it with or without the narration . i agree with andrew sarris when he called godfather 3 a worthy conclusion to the greatest american film epic of the last twenty years and an underrated masterpiece in its own right . as for 12 years a slave check out armond white’s review . in closing i’ll never forget watching white dog on the z channel . a great film destroyed by cretins .

  2. peter solari says

    I saw 12 YEARS A SLAVE last night. It’s a beautifully crafted film, but why should I subject myself to continuous brutality. And, although the film is exceptionally well executed–acting, cinematography, music, editing, there’s not much of a story there except to go on to the next rape, beating, whipping, lynching. The heart of the movie is the lust/love the MIke Fassbender character has for his young slave Patsy. And didn’t we already see that relation in SHINDLER’S LIST between Fiennes’ Nazi and his Jewish love object? As a matter of fact, haven’t we seen all of this already in TV’s ROOTS and last years ridiculous DJANGO? Where every white person is an evil Christian? The liberal film industry will promo this film with many awards nominations, but don’t throw away your good money to be a 2 hour slave to 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      I honestly don’t think this has anything to do with being “liberal.” What does that even mean in this context? There is no division of opinions in this country regarding slavery as there was at the historical time of this movie or last year’s “Lincoln.” “12 Years” aims for sensationalism over comprehension, aesthetics over psychology. It’s a choice an artist makes in his approach to material and requires an aesthetic critique rather than a political or sociological one.

  3. Randy McCloud says

    I would suggest to you the fact that Northup “survived” his 12 years of enslavement tells you all you need to know about his “human spirit”. You seem to take umbrage at the multiple beatings depicted in the film…that was the life of a slave…that was slavery. Showing one beating, may have served the purpose of showing that slaves were beat, but it would not have showed the constant brutality, and violence they lived with…EVERDAY. Frankly, I could care less what motivated Epps to rape, beat, and strip away all humanity in his slaves. I don’t need to know the physcology behind his pathological behavior…he did it , that’s all I need to know. This isn’t a movie about what drove bad white men to do bad things, or good white men to do nothing, it’s a movie about the vile brutalty of slavery. I have seen more than enough movies that have portrayed the effect of slavery on whites. I don’t need to see another. I would also suggest to you “Armistad” is one of those movies. That movie isn’t about ‘slavery’, it’s more court room drama, and about John Adams than slavery. Slavery is just the vehicle used to tell that story. Nor is “Beloved” about slavery, it’s a ghost story. The fact that you have seen these 2 movies, and think they are about slavery, only illustrates the point that American movies HAVE shied away from dealing directly with the subject of slavery. It also causes me to question your credentials as a film critic.

    • Tee R says

      Yeah, I agree. The idea that this film ISN’T about the lives of white people, or what motivated them to treat black humans as property, is what makes the film shocking and tragically unique. How many films set in plantation era America treats the rapes of black women by plantation owners anywhere near as realistically as this?
      And I think there are several moments in the film where McQueen is OBVIOUSLY forcing the brutality of the foundations of the Americas into the audiences field of vision…and rightfully so. That long shot with Ejiafor after talking with Pitt, where he eventually stares DIRECTLY at the audience/camera pretty much begs/indicts the audience.
      Also: as a history buff, to declare that Django (which couldn’t even get it’s own internal chronology right!) is anywhere close to any kind of realism, at all, is just staggering…and says a LOT about commonly held ideas about slavery.

  4. johnny harris says

    The most savage animal on earth, Humans. I wonder if there is any hope for my race. Will we ever be civilized?

  5. Susy Branch says

    And here I felt isolated, having a minority opinion! This film was so heavy handed, I felt brutalized watching it, rather than feeling anything for the protagonist. It felt repetitive and endless. (I thought of it, afterwords, as “12 Years In A Movie Theater.”)

    And I am NOT a woman who has problems with on screen violence, so you can’t say this is squeamish chick shit. It was just, OKAY. WE GET IT. Oh, wait, there’s Brad Pitt, casting himself in the most sanctimonious role in the movie, telling us (because we might not have understood) that slavery is Evil.

    I had every intention of loving this movie. I knew, 30 minutes in, that watching it was going to feel like being clubbed to death, like a baby seal.

    Well observed, Kirk.

    • CHitchensfan says

      Hmmm. Why don’t you go see it again. Now that you know what to expect, you won’t feel so clubbed over the head by the violence, so you can sink your teeth into the story. Better yet, just buy the book, and read it for yourself!

      • Kirk Honeycutt says

        I may indeed buy the book as the story is, as I said, a fascinating one. Thanks for the comments.

  6. Jae says

    This movie wouldn’t have felt heavy handed in making you sit through atrocities if the treatment hadn’t been so by the numbers. Why start the movie with a scene that has no payoff other than that after we flashback we don’t arrive at it until 2/3 through the movie? It felt like it was chosen because it occurred on the right page number. And the violin string being noisily forced onto the pegs – let me guess, every string has its breaking point?

    I kept feeling like I was watching a filmed stage play, with speeches (especially from the female characters) rather than actual dialogue. I kept waiting for an emotional core, other than the feelings with which I walked into the theater. But there wasn’t one, until the last scene.

    And if it hadn’t been for the title, I wouldn’t have known that Solomon was a slave for 12 years. Because you’d never know it from the film itself.

    This isn’t a bad movie, but it isn’t “Roots” either.

    • Andrew says

      Rarely do I comment on websites, but you are spot on with one point. After reading the book, you know that two females are critical to the story: Liza (separated from her children…) and Patsy (object of Epps’ lust and excessive abuse …). However, the dialogue from the two actresses seems forced and stage-like. I only wish that more was invested in these characters, both in writing as well as in the quality/ability of the actresses themselves. Otherwise, I thought it was a good-to-very-good movie (not a great movie) and that Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves the Oscar for his performance. I’m actually glad a film about slavery is brutally real, even if unpleasant to watch (but then again my ancestors were on the receiving end). Lastly, the story was fairly true to the events in the book, more so than most movies.

  7. David says

    I’m from Louisiana and 12 Years was required reading in my Louisiana History class. I was disappointed with this adaptation. The film was a constant parade of brutality, and I never had any emotional connection with Solomon. Nor did it delve beneath the surface of these atrocities. The main problem I had with the movie though is its portrayal of slaves themselves. They were shown as either miserable wretches or conniving Uncle Toms and this is the real travesty in this movie. Slaves were amazingly resilient in the face of such adversity. They had their own dynamic culture hidden from view of white owners. They were artists and musicians and storytellers with complex social structures. It sounds corny but this story is about the triumph of the human spirit against all odds– not just in regards to Solomon’s experience but that of the men and women in bondage along with him. Instead of showing any of that, this film chose to bludgeon us with brutality– yes, a part of our history that should no longer be swept under the rug and needed to be shown in this movie. But presenting the slaves as one dimensional victims, fodder for Fassbender’s Oscar aspirations, serves only to further dehumanize them. Solomon’s story is as much about his immersion into slave culure as it is his abuse at the hands of the white establishment. If the film makers had chosen to explore the former even just a little, all those scenes of rape and torture would have had much more impact instead of feeling like cheap, exploitative torture porn.

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      You make some great points, David, since you’ve read the book which I have not. I especially like your comments about the slave culture that McQueen chose to ignore and the hero’s immersion into that culture. To bad this didn’t fit into the filmmakers’ agenda.

    • Comitant says

      The dialogue is straight out of theater piece, with long winded monologues that are simply too crisp for reality. The flash backs of the free northern life are downright glossy in their cheery freedom, dubious: “[paraphrasing shopkeeper] Good morning to you Mr. Solomon! How may we be of service to you?” Really?

      The movie feels overly designed visually, like a polished for-TV movie, rather than a story of Solomon. Things just happen in the movie as if cued on a stage.. all of a sudden you see Solomon hanging, but the terror of it somehow feels diagrammatic. Cue white man on horseback, cue background activity, cue sunset, cue woman on balcony turning her back, etc. It’s very conservative and predictable way to stage a key scene. I don’t suggest that I want to be horror-shocked, but I do expect a higher level of feeling in such a personally terrifying scene.

      Consider Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto or Herzog’s Rescue Down…both show the terror of imprisonment in much more visceral way.

      • Kirk Honeycutt says

        There are astute observations here. I think my review has served as a forum for people who expected a smarter movie than we actually got.

  8. fontbone says

    doesn’t capture the human spirit? And what spirit may humans capture when you deal with animals? This movie does with slave owners as what Come and See did with the nazis, it portrays, ugly nasty, brutal uneducated human beings. And the spirit of the protagonist is the driving force of the narrative. I don’t think you know what you’re talking about. I suppose you find The Help as more spiritual.

  9. derek says

    Mcqueen has directed Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave. All movies dealing with the human spirit for better or worse. Mcqueen is one of the best to capture his main characters emotions and instill those feelings within the audience. I found myself completely immersed in this film and frankly i wasn’t worried about some expertly constructed storyline. This was all about living as a slave.

    I think you are looking a little too deep into Mcqueen’s reasonings for casting foreign actors. Pretty sure they are all just amazing actors and Mcqueen is a foreigner himself. Maybe he relates to them more on a personal level.

    As far as human spirit goes. This movie had me leaving the theater with an appreciation for life and all humans. So i think the movie got its point across to me.

  10. Eric says

    Unfortunately, this movie like so many other historical films misses reality by a mile. At first I thought it must have been solely based on abolitionist propaganda of the time, but after reading the actual story that was given orally by Mr. Northup and published in the book, I now see that it was only the film makers and script writers who chose to pick and choose truths. I won’t ramble on, but I would strongly encourage anyone interested to read the real story from the book. It is a shame that this movie which is based on an auto biography wasn’t told exactly as written. It should have been a great movie but the director and producers chose to make something they thought would sell. The truth would have made a much better film.

  11. Gsmarten says

    I had a couple issues with the film, as an aspiring filmmaker I was a bit taken aback by the cinematography. It wa almost to pretty. I think the character development of the “bad guys” was nit the point. We’re they conflicted? Who cares. I think it was said in the film, They were still slavers. Great acting all around. And Fassbender had a difficult role and was brave enough to go for it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is an actor I have often admired, and he was astonishing. McQueen is an interesting filmmaker and a true artist. He made the film he was interested in making. Period. Could spike lee have made a better film? I don’t know, but it would have been interesting. I do think you missed the point here, but I respect your opinion.

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      I honestly don’t think anyone can “miss the point” to this movie. You’re hit on the head with it nearly every minute. Thanks for the comments.

  12. Blake says

    Many people are bringing up “the reality” of the film. It’s not the films or any art to present exact reality. Some of the greatest movies weren’t “realistic”. Look at anything by John Ford or even Gone With The Wind and just about any older movie or damn any film. The dialogue often times is larger than life or serves an overall feeling or narrative because ITS NOT REAL LIFE even though it’s based on a true story I think ultimately the perspective of the film is attempting to portray a world that treats human beings as property. It did this to devastating effect. The story is based on a first person account so the fact that the author may not have gone on to describe or even attempt to find out why his owners would treat him that way is totally reasonable. Steve McQueen is merely directing this mans story of survival. The director would be taking poetic license to try and invent what may have caused these men to do the things that they did. It’s enough to know that in this system is completely acceptable because these humans like cattle are property. Also to those that had trouble with the violence that’s what happened. It’s like a war moving sparing death scenes. It diservices you the viewer if they soften the reality. Tragedies like these in other degrees happen still to this day not necessarily slavery but the cruelelty we humans continue to inflict on each other and the society that allows and accepts that violence

  13. Blake says

    Imagine if the author was still alive. Would it be strange to tell him that his book focused to much on the violence he endured? That he should have held back some when “we got the picture”. If I was the author and confronted with the “why didn’t you include some other less brutal aspects of slavery and your captivity?” I’d say “I wish that was part of my story!” it’s just one man’s account and yes like any story and any film it’s “biased” in the sense that it can’t tell everything at all times. In some story’s it works to paint everyone’s backround and to get to see why these characters act the way they do but in some instances I can appreciate a film or story that just hands me people and what you know of them is what the author and director know of them which is just about nothing! They’re not friends their property and owners. Also I didn’t find the film distractingly pretty and I don’t prescribe a film that heavily portrays ugliness to be ugly all the time. The South like anywere can be beautiful, hot, ugly, quiet, scary and anything. Having visited louisanna I found it to be very accurate in depiction. Also films are staged like plays all the time and dialogue too not sure why this is immediately a negative it led to some very powerful images

  14. Chadd Denson says

    This film has everything to say about the human spirit. Interpret this film as a man who is living life as any human would. Suddenly he has fallen asleep into a nightmare of untold horrors. Within this nightmare his spirit is broken and in one particular shot, EJiofor staring into the distance, it is as Solomon has finally succumbed to the fact that he will never wake up. When is is finally free Solomon never once acknowledges his former master and runs back home for he has finally woken up from the nightmare.

    This film speaks about the human spirit in several ways in speaking to the audience in a way that is seldom done. The film speaks of the human spirit through not the characters on screen, but the audience in the seats. McQueen’s film dares you to turn away in shame, daring you not to look at the wrong and misfortunes of our fathers. This film captures the very soul of adaptation in saying, “turn away, it’s just a movie,” and yet out of true guilty conscious, the audience can not.

  15. Bruce says

    Kirk: Thank you for your thoughtful, thought-provoking and articulate review. After seeing the film and struggling with my disappointment with its presentation, your review , especially your last two paragraphs, nailed it. As a small town film critic myself, I applaud your candor and prose. Keep up the inspiration. BB

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      The film has proven to be a litmus test as to which critics fall into lock-step with received opinions and those who can absorb and analyze a film on its own merits. Its racial component also has generated an unusually fierce determination by many (most?) critics to follow the path of political correctness. At the LA Film Critics’ annual voting last month one critic, upon realizing the group was not going to give the film its Best Picture honor, chastised the group and stated: “It may no be the best picture this year but it’s the most important.” This is an astonishing admission of PC fidelity by a critic.

  16. Michael says

    An excellent and very honest review I think. I applaud reviewers who resist the group-think.

  17. Joe says

    I enjoyed reading many of the comments posted here and your responses to them … as well as your review.
    With so many positive reviews of the film I felt as if I somehow missed the boat…. With all the hype I expected it to be this amazing film and when I saw the film shortly after it was released , I remember feeling let down. What I will take away after reading many of the comments here is at least the book is worth reading.

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      Thanks for your comments, Joe. Yes, I think this is a pretty lively discussion of what is now the Academy’s Best Picture for 2013.

  18. Fawad says

    Movie won the oscars and the most critics of movie I see, are old white folks, hmm, too harsh for them? :P

    • Kirk Honeycutt says

      Hmmm, I wish you’d mention your theory to Armond White, the movie’s foremost critical detractor, the next time you see him.

  19. David says

    I watched this movie last week; I wondered if I was the only person that did not enjoy it. I guess I was expecting something else (e.i. The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, The Pianist, etc.); but I think that was my mistake.
    The movie could have been so much more but somehow it misses the opportunity to go deeper into slavery and every character and in return it only jumps around in a flat surface. (Deeper as in more than just graphic physical violence).

  20. George Thomas says

    Very brave review. The movie was ignorant. I wish more reviewers had been as honest. On the bright side I plan to read the book.