Review: 12 Years a Slave

Following its release in America late last year, 12 Years a Slave has been widely regarded as a modern day masterpiece, and by far the best cinematic portrayal of American slavery […]


five stars

Following its release in America late last year, 12 Years a Slave has been widely regarded as a modern day masterpiece, and by far the best cinematic portrayal of American slavery ever created. This is of course a huge claim, and does the film live up to it? The answer is an emphatic yes, and I would even argue that it surpasses it.

The new film from British film director, Steve McQueen, follows the shockingly true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn black American man and talented musician with a wife and two children who is kidnapped and shipped to the South to a dark, unforgiving world of slavery.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon

McQueen’s sinister representation of slavery in the Deep South is unbelievably realistic, and, at times, almost unbearable to watch (but not in a bad way). Many scenes are dominated by the heavy-handed cruelty of the slave owners, whether it is from the sadistic Tibeats (Paul Dano), or the psychotic rage of Epps played by Michael Fassbender; we’re a long way away from the playful tone of Django Unchained. The brutal whipping of slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is particularly difficult to watch, as McQueen doesn’t hold back in showing the severely abused back of the poor victim, covered in cuts and bruises.

Another impressive element of 12 Years a Slave is Hans Zimmer’s haunting score; it closely accompanies the distressing tragedies on the screen. Music is a key element of the film; it is ironic that it is Solomon’s musical talents that get him captured in the first place. Elsewhere, the eerie contrast of Paul Dano’s cowardly rendition of Run N****r Run and the slaves’ powerful, graveside performance of Roll Jordan Roll provides a real moment of sympathetic connection with our protagonist.

However, it is undoubtedly the marvellous performances that represent the film’s crowning jewel. Michael Fassbender brilliantly portrays the demonic cruelty that slave owners possessed, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o’s performance of slave girl Patsey is heartbreaking, and nothing short of outstanding. Despite this, it is British Chiwetel Ejiofor’s harrowing performance of Solomon that is a personal highlight, McQueen’s regular use of close-ups combined with Ejiofor’s humbling performance evoked real sympathy, there was not a dry eye in the house in the film’s conclusion, including myself.

It would be a great injustice if 12 Years a Slave did not sweep the Oscars; in a year filled with brilliant films and performances, this really is a class above its opponents. If there’s one thing you do after this exam period, make sure you go and see this film.