“12 Years a Slave” (2013) – Review by Callum Slater

12 years a slave lupita

12 Years a Slave

Review by Callum Slater

Humanity has done unbearable and cruel things throughout history, one of the worst has
been slavery, especially in the south in the mid 19th Century. I’m not American, I’m an
Australian and I believed I realized to true horror of slavery but then I realized it was a film,
a truly immersive, disturbing and harrowing film named 12 Years a Slave and kudos to
director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley, who have powerfully captured the
unbearable cruelty, and humanity to this disturbing reality. On all sides.

At the centre is Solomon Northup (played with forceful magnificence by the underrated
Chiwetel Ejioffor) who was a free man in New York, but drugged and kidnapped, sold into
slavery and is sent around the south to be under ownership of Priest Ford (Brilliant rising
star Benedict Cumberbatch) then to sociopathic and maniacal slaver Edwin Epps (played
with wonder and terrifying awe by Michael Fassbender) and many tragic figures of slavery.
This ensemble cast is powerful, intense and consists of the most depth filled soul of the
past year which can make you want to kill characters or break your heart, no scratch that,
shatter it. Chiwetel Ejiofor after a decade in character actor supporting roles finally gets the
role of a life time and one he’ll be remembered in. His compelling depth and heartbreaking
power create a portrait of a man on the verge of losing all hope yet with a strange whisper,
almost unnoticeably, but his subtly and facial expressions show every detail of struggle. It’s
a sin to look away, and Steve McQueen knows this to the point of having shots hold for
long periods of time just to let the performance sink in. You almost want them to go longer,

Michael Fassbender, in his third collaboration with McQueen is an egotistical ticking time
bomb, believing it is his god given right to treat his slaves like dirt, while conflicted by being
in love called Patsey. Patsey is a slave, a punching bag and a victim of her superiors
treating her like a toy to be broken. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o captures Patsey’s torment
and conflicted and quite frankly unbelievability towards her situation. The rest of the cast is
of course great too, giving us seasoned actors such as Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson and
Paul Dano and newcomers Benedict Cumberbatch and Scoot McNairy, all of whom are
terrific in their roles.

Steve McQueen, directing his third film after the brilliant works of Shame and Hunger here
as constructed a film that takes us by the wrist unexpectedly and throws us to the ground,
showing us Solomon’s perspective and broken hatred toward the situation. All the events
that Solomon witness, cruel or as kind as people of this kind in the south could be back
then are captured with raw feelings and shocking reactions from the audience. McQueen
uses brilliant long takes and distant shots to make it look like you’re a fly on the wall,
observing every single horrifying detail from Solomon’s first beating to being forced to
pleasure a fellow slave or being hung from a tree, just barely touching the ground. The
meticulously framing and masterful use of perspective give us character development, and
convince you that what is happening is real, or if not, it most certainly happened to a slave,
capturing every heart crushing detail from every character. They’re all flawed and
McQueen know this and wants us to see it, and we do. Sean Bobbit’s cinematography also
adds to this with the use of saturated lighting and slow camera movements or none at all,
that create beautiful-looking landscape shots, and meticulous, brilliantly placed shots that
show wonderful, moving, or despicable character moments.

McQueen also uses a brilliant pacing, the film is called 12 Years a Slave, and it takes
through what you actually feel like is twelve years, with subtle character ages and great
passes of time by using pillow shots (cut always from drama or conversation to landscape
or object shots). By using this pacing, what you cannot deny is compelling, you just
wonder when the torture of Solomon’s soul is going to end, and when he is brought home
and the story closes you realize a haunting message in the final line ‘there is nothing to
forgive.’ Of course Solomon cannot forgive the slavers, but we as human beings cannot
forgive for slavery even happening, and to get more pretentious, all the main characters
were slaves in their own ways, Epps to his desires, Patsey to Epps, Ford (Cumberbatch)
to society and white power and so on. John Ridley and Steve McQueen show this
brilliantly and show us in human flaw, slavery was born and showing through Solomon’s
harrowing, horror filled situation how flawed humanity is — and through some flaws horrible
things can come.

Steve McQueen has made his best film yet, his most honest, disturbing and well made.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant, Michael Fassbender is the best villain not in a blockbuster in a
few years, and Lupita Nyong’o is wonderfully heartbreaking. 12 Years a Slave is
a remarkable achievement of filmmaking; it’s brilliant use of cinematic techniques, acting
and writing create a powerful, realistic, and great film. A truly great one.

Grade: A+

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