12 Years a Slave (2013)

Those ain't daisies he's picking.

Those ain’t daisies he’s picking.


INTRODUCTION. I’ve been having some difficulty in trying to write this review. Understandably, as 12 Years a Slave is a difficult film – but a powerful one, all at once easy and challenging to encounter. It is certainly required viewing for those interested in cinema, history and the human narrative.

“I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation – only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person.” – Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

STORY. I’ve taken the above quotation from Northup’s original classic: the true, written story of a free black man in 19th century USA who was unwittingly kidnapped and forced into slavery. The movie may have a lot to say about the societal characteristics of slavery but it is not historically encompassing, which sets it apart from films like Amistad. This story is a struggle for freedom in its most humane and realistic sense – it pulls no punches and strives to be unequivocally personal. Director Steve McQueen doesn’t even attempt to use linear chronology and allows the narrative to weave in and out of a central time line, interspersing Solomon’s present with his memories. 

Now. Will you need tissues? It’s difficult to say. I definitely did. 12 Years a Slave has been beautifully shot and depicted with compelling unsentimentally – none of those deliberate, Hollywood attempts to claw at our tear ducts. It refuses to compromise in the face of softer sensibilities, and the emotion we feel as an audience comes as a gradual catharsis that builds up into something intangibly ardent.

CHARACTERS. Regardless of what Italian movie posters or marketing agents may tell you, the protagonist of this film is (unmistakably) Solomon Northup. Portraying a man born and raised in the comforts afforded by his freedom, Ejiofor’s expressive performance almost reflects our own reactions to the horrors of slave trade – almost. One can hardly measure the utter distress and degradation of his twelve years against the two hours we spend in an air conditioned theater. 

But that is something we’ve come to expect from stories of this nature – what came as a surprise, I’ll admit, was the humanization of slavers. I stand in great approbation of films that dabble in the grey area of villainy, which holds true to reality better than complete good or evil. The plantation owners and traders of 12 Years a Slave are human; they are impossible to dismiss as mindless, brutal fiends on account of their inherent complexity. This is more terrifying than it sounds.

CONCLUSION. If you are faint of heart then steel yourself for 12 Years a Slave. It is a masterpiece of beauty and candour; two intermingling elements that have practically become trademarks of McQueen’s productions.


STORY: 8.5/10
OVERALL: 9.5/10

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