12 Years a Slave (2013)

Final Rating: 10/10

Instant classics with movies are fortunately coming by more often than you’d expect. Last year we had The Master; A captivating analysis of how far gone a mind can be, whether it be through brainwashing or through shock. In 2011, we had Drive; A love letter to European cinema that comments on Hollywood films and their dependency on the most trivial outcomes. Now, we have a film that is so profound and ambitious that I can honestly say that there will most likely not be a film as good as this one this year; Not to this reviewer anyways.

12 Years a Slave is a rare perfect movie, and another entry into the short list of instant classics of our time. If Schindler’s List took a common movie theme (the Holocaust) and set an unbeatable bar, 12 Years a Slave has done just that with the topic of slavery in the United States of America. Steve McQueen has cemented himself as one of our generation’s finest auteur filmmakers with his third breathtaking film not just in a row, but in total. All three of his films are to be watched, and 12 Years a Slave stands as his masterpiece thus far.

Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a free man with a wife and children when he gets tricked into being sold as a slave, as the movie is a test of his spirit as he wills to survive the tortures he faces so he can see his family again. Oh, by the way, this is based on a true story. The film is based on the autobiography of the same, and you get a very personal look at how slaves were treated. In fact, you get a horrifically real account of it. The film has shocking scene after shocking scene, and it all looks so real that it becomes an eye opening experience. Slavery was a disgusting part of history, and it took a daring film like 12 Years a Slave to show just how bad it really got.

The film doesn’t feel like a moral lesson, though, and the shocking scenes are not “torture porn” in nature, but rather the same kinds of extremities you’d find in emotionally strenuous classics like Come and See or Two Women. You know they are for a bigger message and are essential to Solomon’s experience as a slave. They create a scary environment where you will always fear for Solomon’s safety, as well as the other slaves, as no one is safe in this movie. Now, what is also admirable is that the white man is not painted as an evil person. Instead, the movie shows that the people who are evil are just simply evil natured. Granted, most of the caucasian people within this movie may be monstrous. However, there are not only caucasians that end up being kind spirits who are stuck in these positions of power, but even the villains of the movie are so well acted and created that you can just sense the years of brainwashing instilled in them. They are still despicable, but not in a shallow and cardboard cutout way.

Ejiofor does a grande job as Solomon as he takes on so many challenging scenes. His true intentions are revealed through his eyes in every single scene, and his breathy, weak voice is enough to make everything that comes out of his mouth both profound and saddening. Michael Fassbender plays a plantation owner and the primary slave owner of Solomon, and he, thus proving himself yet again that he is one of our generation’s finest, does a sterling job as a disgusting excuse of a human being. Referring back to Schindler’s List, Fassbender’s character can be compared to Ralph Fiennes’s character as they are both hate filled people who somehow start to fall for someone of the minority they are respectively despising. In a key scene with a long take that will be burned into your mind permanently, Fassbender goes through all of the emotions of a demonic higher up: He’s in control of everything, he loses control of the situation and he loses control of himself. Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey, a female slave Solomon meets, with such conviction and realism that the most heart wrenching scenes in the movie become ten times more damaging. Amongst Ejiofor, Fassbender, and Nyong’o’s award worthy performances (if they do not get their respectful recognitions, there is no justice within the film industry) are great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and even short cameos by Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt.

The movie is brilliantly shot. When we aren’t presented with images of horror, we are presented with images of natural beauty, reminding us that the evils we face are all man made. There are a number of very creative shots, including a close up of a fiddle, a shot that pans through a boat’s water wheel, a close up of bugs eating a cotton plant, and many exquisite landscape shots. Some of these shots, Malick like in nature, are gorgeous and help keep you stable amongst the upsetting moments. The score, composed by Hans Zimmer, comes and goes unobtrusively, and it always seeps in at the right time with a memorable progression. It’s difficult to make a film about something so revolting be so pretty, and yet 12 Years a Slave ticks that box as well.

12 Years a Slave is a gut wrenching film full of the realism you can expect from Steve McQueen. It is not just a powerful movie, it is a spellbinding movie. While it may be gruesome and full of disturbingly real imagery, you can sense the films candidness in bringing Solomon’s complete story to the screen. With many unforgettable scenes, top notch acting, stunning aesthetics, and a story so moving with an ending scene that will leave you in awe, 12 Years a Slave is a pitch perfect movie. It has set a standard so high when it comes to films about slavery that I don’t see it being topped anytime soon (or ever). I would insist that everyone should see this movie, yet it definitely is not for the easily offended or squeamish. If you are willing to witness Solomon Northup’s barebones story with all of its nightmares, however, you will be left with an unforgettable experience, a courageous story, and a masterful film.

About author

Former Film Editor & Music Writer at Live in Limbo. Co-host of the Capsule Podcast. A Greek/South African film enthusiast. He has recently earned a BFA honours degree in Cinema Studies at York University. He is also heavily into music, as he can play a number of instruments and was even in a few bands. He writes about both films and music constantly. You should follow him on Twitter @Andreasbabs.