RATING: ★★★½ (3.5/4)
12 Years a Slave chronicles the remarkable true story of Solomon Northup, a free African-American from New York who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Following over a decade of menacing abuse in the Antebellum South, Northup was finally granted his freedom and returns to his family. He spent the remainder of his life as a staunch abolitionist, assisting with various anti-slavery causes such as the Underground Railroad. The film is based on Northup’s memoirs, similarly titled 12 Years a Slave, which was published in 1853.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (American Gangster, Inside Man) brilliantly portrays the stoic, humble persona of Northup, and will likely challenge Matthew McConaughey’s act in Dallas Buyers Club for the Academy Award for Best Actor. Michael Fassbender (Prometheus, The Counselor) delivers a phenomenal performance as a plantation owner whose menacing brutality is nothing short of chilling. Together, the two actors serve as the backbone of the film, strongly representing the dichotomy of good and evil.
Rather than solely denigrate the institution of slavery, an unfortunate, unjustifiable reality of American history, British director Steve McQueen takes the film in an alternate direction. He primarily seeks to illustrate the horrifyingly intense struggle of Northup, who refuses to succumb to feelings of defeat and despair. Moreover, McQueen effectively conveys raw, unfiltered emotion to the audience, allowing for a vivid film largely devoid of political overtones. While the movie certainly highlights the abusive nature of slavery in an unrelenting, graphic manner, the film evolves into a powerful tale of will and survival that transcends its genre.
In addition to McQueen’s masterful guidance, Hans Zimmer’s score provides the movie with a wonderful stylistic element, which is refreshing given the film’s obviously solemn subject matter. Zimmer’s musical compositions not only effectively build harrowing suspense, but also complement the characters’ vast range of emotions. His extraordinary talent, evident in his musical scores from blockbusters such as The Dark Knight and Inception, is in full gear throughout the film.
It is evident from the beginning of his enslavement that Northup possesses a fervent desire to persevere rather than become a helpless victim. In fact, at various instances throughout the film, Northup chastises his fellow slaves for their grief and self-pity. Whether it is the mother who is separated from her child or the young girl who is the sexual desire of a plantation owner, Northup passionately urges them to not become entrapped in a perpetual state of mourning. In this sense, 12 Years a Slave is much more than just a movie about slavery, but rather an iconic film about the inherently American dogma of self-determination.
My one critique is that the film seems to rush through the events surrounding Northup’s release, a truly remarkable feat given few kidnapped Africans-Americans were ever able to regain their status as free men. Brad Pitt (Moneyball, Ocean’s Eleven) briefly portrays the Canadian carpenter who assists Northup in acquiring his freedom. Unfortunately, his performance comes across as forced and unnatural, which exacerbates the confusion around the logistics regarding Northup’s release.
Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a fantastic film which does justice to the legacy of Solomon Northup. The movie’s various components synchronize in a harmonious rhythm, allowing the audience to easily become enthralled by Northup’s unbelievable story. I cannot reiterate enough the universal appeal of the film, an attribute which will allow 12 Years a Slave to certainly be a contender at the upcoming Academy Awards. Although probably not the best choice for a date or family movie night, 12 Years a Slave will undeniably invoke your rawest, most innate emotions in a captivating manner.
Check out the trailer here!