12 Years A Slave

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Director: Steve McQueen.
Screenplay: John Ridley.
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Scoot McNairy, Michael Kenneth Williams, Quvenzhane Wallis, Dwight Henry, Garret Dillanhunt, Kelsey Scott, Bryan Batt, Taran Killam.

My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin

After so vividly scrutinising the agony and the plight of Irish revolutionary Bobby Sands, in his 2008 directorial debut “Hunger” and following that up with an equally agonising portrait of sex addiction in 2011’s “Shame“, artist turned director Steve McQueen quickly established himself as a very raw and unflinching filmmaker. As did, his fearless leading actor Michael Fassbender. Now, with their third collaboration, it doesn’t look like they’ve had any change of heart and tackle the painful subject of slavery in 1840’s America.

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Based on the incredible true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in pre-Civil War Saratoga. As a talented musician he is lured to Washington D.C. with the promise of paid work before awaking to find himself in chains and sold into slavery where he endures a long fight for his freedom.

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It could be said that the common theme that runs throughout McQueen’s films is polemical; “Hunger” addressed the political atrocities forced upon the Irish while “Shame” addressed the nuerotic, psychological condition satyriasis and how it’s just as empty and unfulfilling for men as nymphomania is for women. With “12 Years A Slave“, there’s no doubt about the polemic that McQueen is addressing. It’s one that has resided in the heart and history of America (and the world) since it’s inception and one that should never be forgotten. On this evidence it’s clear that McQueen is in no mood to allow you to forget. He depicts these atrocities with such brutal condemnation and documents this dark period of American history with the subtlety of a sledgehammer. He refuses to pull any punches, even lingering long on shots of abuse and punishment, forcing you to stay with it and not giving you the chance to divert your gaze. One scene in particular has Solomon on his tiptoes, noose around his neck and struggling to preserve his life by staying upright. Meanwhile, the plantation workers go about their business and children play in the background. It’s sobering and excruciating to watch but essential viewing nonetheless.

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Much has been said about the solid work of Ejiofor in the lead and his acclaimed performance is entirely justified. This is an actor that manages to convey emotion with the blink of an eye and extremely subtle facial expressions. He’s so subtle that his performance is an absolute masterclass in minimalism. This leaves Fassbender to play the opposite. He tears the screen up with a ferocity and shows why McQueen always manages to get the very best from him. They’re starting to develop an almost Scorsese/DeNiro like understanding and I, for one, welcome it wholeheartedly. When “Hunger” and “Shame” were released, there was no other actor that was better or more committed to their roles than Fassbender yet he was shamefully overlooked for awards. It’s now time to remedy those mistakes and recognise this man as one of the very best around at present. Fassbender’s Edwin Epps is a detestable and highly controlling individual. He’s prone to wild fits of rage but under his eyes hide the gaze of a man who’s struggling with his own demons while relying on scripture to excuse his abusive behaviour. The object of his unwanted affection and abuse is the fragile Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who not only has to endure all physical and sexual abuse from Epps but she must also endure the jealous wrath of his wife (Sarah Paulson). For Patsey, there really is no let-up in the relentless nature of her existence. If Nyong’o is the beating heart of the film then Fassbender is the visceral head and Ejiofor, most certainly, the dignified soul. All three of them deliver performances of such outstanding vigour and commitment. As much as it’s these three who shine the most, though, the surrounding cast members deliver some solid work too; Cumberbatch as a more gentlemanly slave owner; Giamatti as a insensitive trader and particularly the aforementioned Paulson as Epps’ vindictive spouse. There’s also some light delivered from producer Brad Pitt but his late appearance as one of the truly decent white characters seems somewhat misplaced and distracting due to his star wattage. It’s also around this point that you realise that the film has no real sense of time, it’s hard to decipher where we stand and how long Solomon has been subjected to his detention and labour and even though the film so thoroughly captures the endurance of the human spirit, ultimately, it fails to add anything further to the ongoing debate about slavery itself.
Despite these minor quibbles, however, McQueen still delivers a vital and overwhelming cinematic achievement.

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With Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” drawing the film year to a close in 2012, it’s fitting that McQueen should end 2013 with what could be considered that film’s perfect companion piece. Not easy viewing by any means but this is an important and cathartic elegy about the determination for survival against insuperable odds.

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Mark Walker

Trivia: Chiwetel Ejiofor was hesitant to portray Solomon Northup before accepting. The actor prepared for his role by immersing himself in the Louisiana plantation culture and learning how to use and play the violin.

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53 Responses to “12 Years A Slave”

  1. Nice review Mark. Glad you were able to catch up with it. Love what you said about Fassbender. He is indeed ferocious and uncomfortable. He goes all in. Ejiofor and Nyong’o are both brilliant. I was so glad to see Nyong’o win last night at the Critics Choice Awards. She tore my heart out. What a devestating performance.

    I did have big issues with Pitt, not just the performance but with the writing. He comes in completely out of the blue and basically lectures us on how we should feel about slavery. It was totally unneeded. Prior to it, the movie had done an incredible job of doing that. But Pitt seems to come along in order to lead us. It’s as if suddenly McQueen was questioning his material. I also couldn’t help but notice Pitt’s typical mannerisms and smirks.

    Still, this is a strong film and one that has staying power.

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    • Cheers bro! Yeah, the three performances by Ejiofor, Nyong’o and Fassbender are just sublime. Definitely three of the years best.

      Totally get what you’re saying on Brad Pitt. As much as I like him, his appearance (and acting technique) seemed jarring. It’s almost as if he’s written himself that “saviour” role since he produced the film. It felt completely out of place and, again, I agree about his lecturing. It wasn’t necessary. I was perfectly aware (as I’m sure everyone was) about my feeling on the subject. No education or opinion from the Pittster was required.

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      • In Pitt’s defense I did hear where he is based on a real person. But I can’t imagine the real man just strolled in and became the instant beacon of light and justice as he is in the movie.

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      • Yeah, I did suspect that his character would have been based on a particular person but it’s kinda misjudged in the film, where it actually looked like it was cut and pasted in. Casting Pitt for a start was a bad move there. It might have been more acceptable to cast someone else, possibly lesser known than one of the biggest stars in the world.

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      • Great point.

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  2. Another one I’ll probably never see so I’ll take your word for it.

    I thought you’d appreciate this. Got drunk last night and got up to take a piss in the middle of the night. I stumbled around the bedroom, made it the bathroom and fell down and hit my head on the wall.

    Classy!!

    Boat Drinks!

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  3. Nice review Mark, I’m going to see this film next Friday.

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  4. Good review, Mark. Certainly a good movie, and one that’s definitely hard to watch at times. And I am glad to see that Fassbender is finally getting that awards recognition he so deserves after this. 🙂

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    • Thanks Chris. Definitely a tough watch at times and I’m with you on the Fass. He’s brilliant here and it’s great to see him finally getting some awards recognition. I just hope he can win it.

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  5. Popcorn Nights Says:

    Enjoyed reading Mark. No opinion of my own yet but I’ll probably see this in the next week or so!

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  6. Looks like a good and powerful film, but chances are good that I’ll never see it (despite my being solidly in love with Benedict Cumberbatch). I have so many films to catch up on, this kind of film just always seems to stay on the back-burner as “something I’d like to see”, but somehow, never do.

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    • That’s what Lincoln was like for me last year. I always wanted to see it but I put everything else before it. Sometimes with a film of this kind, it demands a certain mood and commitment. Don’t overlook it completely, though. It’s great!

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  7. Outstanding article, Mark! I too love this flick and there’s no doubt in my mind that the Oscars will be good to it. I just wish they were good to Oscar Issac!

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    • Thanks Joseph! It was a brilliant film and I reckon your right on the oscars. They tend to be good to films like this. It’s a shame all round about the Coens film, though. I really expected that to feature.

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  8. Good review Mark. One of those very good, very well-done movies that I may not want to watch again for a very long time. Not a bad thing, just a thing in general. Probably makes it all the more memorable in the long-run.

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  9. Awesome review Mark! I’m in agreement w/ you about the passage of time thing, it didn’t feel like it had been 12 years. It felt more like maybe 3-5 years tops. I also agree about what you said about Pitt so as much as I like that his character will finally rescue Solomon, I wish they cast someone else in the part that weren’t so distracting.

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    • Thanks Ruth. Yeah, the passing of time wasn’t dealt with properly at all. Nobody seemed to age at all. The only time I seen a grey hair on Solomon was only towards the very end of the film but the biggest problem with time was when he left Epps’ plantation to go work on another due to the plague of caterpillars in the cotton field. It felt like Epps turned up to collect him a day later but I suspect that some time had passed then.

      As for Pitt, I do like him as an actor but it was misjudged casting him in that particular role. He could possibly have played another role effectively but not the one he was given. It seemed too Hollywoody when he turned up.

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      • Hi again Mark! “It seemed too Hollywoody when he turned up.” Yeah that’s how I felt about it too, and his lines were the worst too, it’s as if they thought the audience weren’t convinced enough about how to feel about slavery. But Ejiofor is consistently good throughout, he deserved all the kudos he’s been getting.

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      • Yeah, he bit was a bit too preachy. Talkin to us like we must have somehow missed the point throughout the 2hrs that preceded his arrival. It was a tad insulting actually.

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  10. I cannot wait to see this!

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  11. Nice review. I was a huge fan of 12 Years A Slave and its depiction of slavery really stunned me. I didn’t have an issue with Pitt’s character, sure he was a bit preachy but without his involvement I’m not sure the project could have gotten off the ground.

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    • Cheers my man. Yeah, Pitt’s involved as producer probably did play a big part but I was distracted with his appearance in the film. Normally, I never have a problem with Pitt but I just don’t think he was suitable for the role he had.

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  12. The film’s power is matched by your towering review here Mark. Job well done sir. I gave it a lower score simply for the comment you make towards the end: “it fails to add anything further to the ongoing debate about slavery itself.” The film is profound, sure, but I was expecting perhaps something more visible to take away; the commentary is still left wide open as to why any of this really mattered. It was just blood-smattering nonsense. Which, of course, is the real tragedy of the matter.

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    • Much obliged sir! I appreciate the compliment. I can understand some folk having issues in certain areas and I think it’s commentary on slavery never really revealed anything that we didn’t already know. Like you say, it then leaves the film open to wondering what the point was. We already had Lincoln and Django Unchained last year that had already reminded those that may have forgotten. Still, I thought it was superb!

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  13. Great review Mark. This film was incredibly brutal and harrowing, it never shielded you from the horrors of slavery. The whipping scenes in particular we’re difficult to watch yet you couldn’t take your eyes off the screen.

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  14. I thought it was a good movie but by far McQueen’s weakest. His minimalistic, detached style didn’t fit the story at all. I also found all the characters underdeveloped in spite of the actors’ best effort. i wasn’t blown away by Eijofor, Nyong’o or Fassbender but Cumberbatch and Paulson who managed to do so much in so little time, with such odd and messy script really impressed me.

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    • I loved it Sati but I do agree that Hunger and Shame are better films. They’re two of my personal favourites actually. I did find some faults but I thought the minimalist approach from Ejiofor was outstanding work. I have to say that I found Fassbender and Nyong’o excellent as well. Like you say, though, Cumberbatch does wonders with a small role and Paulson was a revelation.

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  15. Excellent review. I definitely agree about Pitt.

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  16. Very considered and thought-provoking stuff Mark. This film will increase in stature year on year I feel.

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    • I do believe you could be right there Mark. I think it will grow in time. It’s not exactly the type of film you would watch over and over but after time it’ll always be one worth revisiting. Cheers man!

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  17. Beautiful review, Mark! I cannot wait to see this one.

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  18. Outstanding Review Mark and very concise. I found 12 Years a Slave to be an important film, no question. A beautiful, again no question, but despite its themes of survival and the “endurance of the human spirit”, I found it one of the most tragic and emotionally heartbreaking films I have ever witnessed. I hope it gets the recognition it deserves from the Academy come Oscar night.

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    • Cheers Allan. It’s certainly an important film that really hits hard. This is the type of film that Im sure the oscars will be very generous too. They lap this stuff up – and for good reason!

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  19. Sterling work sir. Finally caught up with this and I’m still digesting it to be honest. I have a couple of issues with how McQueen structured the story, but other than that it’s another amazing feat of filmmaking from him.

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  20. Another brilliant review Mark! I really, really want to get to this, but thinking I should watch McQueen’s other things first? I was thinking about watching this over the weekend if I get a minute or two!

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    • Cheers Zoe. It’s not necessary to see McQueen’s earlier films first but I do think they are even more minimalist than 12 years a Slave is. It’ll probably make 12 years and even better film for you as you wouldn’t be expecting the same style. Hunger and Shame are just diamonds though. Pure uncut diamonds.

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  21. Excellent review, Mark, glad you were finally able to catch up with this one. I agree Pitt stuck out a bit, but his appearance didn’t detract too much for me. For my money, this is still my favorite film of the year and it would be a well-deserving Oscar winner. Can’t wait to see what McQueen does next.

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  22. McQueen is such a talent. It’s also good that he keeps finding roles for Fassbender too.

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