Judge Erich Asperschlager has nothing funny to say about this movie.
"You ain't a free man."
Many films have been made about the experience and lasting impact of American slavery, but none focus on its brutality and inhumanity like director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave. Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, it is the story of Solomon Northrup—a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Through the eyes of one man unjustly imprisoned we see a spectrum of injustice: in the men and women who prospered from the system and the slaves who did what was necessary to survive. It is a chilling story more akin to horror than drama, brought to life by a stunning cast and a director with a unique talent for making art out of uncomfortable material.
Facts of the Case
Saratoga, NY native Solomon Northrup was a respected musician and family man when he was invited in 1841 by two circus men to perform in Washington D.C. Once there, the men drugged Northrup and handed him off to slave traders who gave him a new name, smuggled him downriver, and sold him as a slave. For the next 12 years, Northrup endured and witnessed cruelty at the hands of plantation owners and hired hands.
Although slavery officially ended in the United States in 1865, it remains America's great shame—an indelible stain on a country that prides itself on justice and opportunity. Racial inequality and slavery are to America as the Holocaust is to Germany. It took a bloody civil war to abolish slavery and another hundred years to change the laws that separated black and white Americans. Racial tensions still play a role in politics and the public conversation. Slavery cut America deeply, and the wound is still healing.
If that wound is ever to heal, we can't forget what ripped the country apart. 12 Years a Slave isn't a film about the lingering effects of slavery. It doesn't celebrate the strength of the African-American community. It's not about politics or victories. It isn't about the healing process. It's about the pain. McQueen has made an American Holocaust movie, unflinching in its depiction of mental and physical torture—as told by someone who experienced it firsthand.
Northrup suffers a great injustice. It is unthinkable that someone could be taken for no reason and forced into slavery with no way to tell his family what happened. The bigger injustice is that what he goes through is no different than every other slave he encounters. In fact, he has it better than most. Better than a mother torn apart from her children, the men he sees hanged, and a young woman repeatedly raped and beaten. At least Solomon Northrup's story has a "happy" ending. If time and distance have lessened the impact of slave narratives on modern audiences, McQueen makes it hard to walk away from 12 Years a Slave unaffected.
Solomon Northrup begins his imprisonment defiant, ready to plan an escape. With each stop on his journey, each beating, each slave he sees tortured and hanged, he falls deeper into the role he's forced to play to survive. In this new life, Northrup is surrounded by people working to carve away his humanity. The man who sells him (a chilling Paul Giamatti) casually refers to slaves as "beasts" and strips them for display. The wife of his first owner offers solace to a grieving mother by saying "her children will soon be forgotten." His second owner (Michael Fassbender) justifies horrific acts with Bible verses. Some white people are kinder than others, but they all treat black people like animals. It's not a matter of inequality. It's a matter of inhumanity.
McQueen has been criticized for the violence in 12 Years a Slave. While he shows some restraint, for the most part we see terrible things in excruciating detail. When Solomon runs afoul of a bitter farmhand (Paul Dano), he is left dangling from a rope for the better part of a day. We are forced to watch Northrup hang inches from death for several full minutes of near-silent screen time. Near the end of the film, McQueen shoots a bloody whipping close up in an unbroken handheld shot. As in his previous films, the director uses uncomfortably long takes and graphic imagery to communicate human suffering.
12 Years a Slave is more than a compelling story made well. It is an actors' showcase—a rotating ensemble film that centers around Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup. Ejiofor runs the emotional gamut, conveying complicated and conflicting feelings with often no more than body language. The first half of the film features memorable turns by Dano, Giamatti, and Benedict Cumberbatch as Northrup's kindest owner—though his kindness stops just short of being willing to help him get home. The back half of the film settles in the hell of a cotton plantation run by Michael Fassbender's Edwin Epps. The real Northrup spent 10 of his 12 slave years owned by Epps, and it's there that Northrup endures the worst abuse, and meets Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong'o in her debut. Nyong'o gives a vulnerable performance. On the surface she is quiet and meek, trying and failing to avoid Epps' unwanted advances and his wife's (Sarah Paulson) hatred—but underneath there's a fiery, desperate woman who carries the full weight of the slave experience on her scarred shoulders. Solomon Northrup spent a brutal 12 years in slavery, but at the end he got to go home. For slaves like Patsey, there was no way out.
Fox delivers a richly detailed 2.40:1/1080p HD transfer that captures its beautiful ugliness, immaculately framed and shot by McQueen and longtime director of photography Sean Bobbitt. Where the film is sun-bleached, it's as intended, with natural color and a crisp digital image, day and night, close-up and in Lousiana vistas. Audio is presented in an open 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mix that places equal importance on Hans Zimmer's minimal (surprisingly non-Zimmer) score and sound effects to build atmosphere out of clanking chains, buzzing cicadas, and cracking whips.
12 Years a Slave (Blu-ray) special features are limited, but provide a good overview of the film's production and historical inspiration:
• "12 Years a Slave: A Historical Portrait" (41:21): Chiwetel Ejiofor anchors this two-part featurette with excerpts from Solomon Northrup's book, as the director, producer, actors, and Northrup biographer David Fiske discuss the film's origin, themes, and style.
• "The Team" (7:43): Focuses on the talented folks behind the costumes, production design, and make-up.
• "The Score" (3:55): Hans Zimmer discusses the ideas behind his minimal string and woodwind score.
• Digital copy / UltraViolet download
12 Years a Slave shows us the spectrum of Southern slave culture through the eyes of a man unwillingly embedded behind enemy lines. McQueen and Northrup take viewers across historical distance to a time when black people were considered less than human. Although much has changed over the past hundred and fifty years, it takes more than constitutional amendments to change hearts. The descendants of the slaves depicted in this film continue to fight for equality. There are inspirational movies to be told about the aftermath of slavery and the resilience of the African American community. 12 Years a Slave is not one of those movies. It is a raw reminder of America at its lowest point. The film is violent, distasteful, and hard to watch. As it should be, lest we forget.
A powerful film. Not guilty!
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Review content copyright © 2014 Erich Asperschlager; Site design and review layout copyright © 2016 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.