This is a difficult movie to review. It covers a very sensitive subject and is thus hard to criticize. Not to say that my only opinions are negative ones. In fact, I thought it was very dramatic and well-acted, I just found several parts hard to watch – and that’s not necessarily a good thing for a movie.
12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery for, you guessed it, twelve years. In order to survive on the plantations, he has to hide the fact that he’s educated so that the Masters won’t see him as a threat. It is an emotional story that is not for the faint of heart or squeamish viewers.
12 Years a Slave is structured around long, drawn out scenes. Some of these are very hard to watch. Sort of like the hand-sawing scene in 127 Hours – only longer. In one, a man is hung from a tree and can barely touch the ground with his toes. He struggles for hours to keep them from sinking into the mud while the characters in the background carry on with everyday life. This scene goes on, and on, and on. It’s cringe-worthy. The movie revolves around extended scenes of lashings, rapings, and bleeding wounds. There are also, however, some shots where the actor just stares off into the distance. It’s for emotional effect and probably to show the passage of time, but it goes on for twice as long as any staring contest I have ever had.
Speaking of the passage of time, in one of the very first scenes a date and location are inscribed at the bottom for our reference. You’d think they would continue with this throughout the film so we could know where in the “12 years” we are. Sadly, this first reference is the only one we get. It doesn’t hurt the plot or make it more confusing, I just feel the film would have more effect if we could see how long he spent under each Master’s rule.
Visible writing aside, I was very very impressed with the language used in the script. Solomon is a free man, an educated man, and the time he spends in New York with his white friends highlights their equally extensive vocabulary. Their high manner of speech isn’t just posh-sounding, but is respectful of their 19th century setting. Flash forward to the Deep South, and Solomon’s diction is now in direct contrast to the slave drivers and their drawling accents. I love when writing has several distinct voices, and here the script does just that.
It hurt to watch Solomon, a kind, smart man, be forced to do the things that he does. While Paul Dano is excellent in his typically slimy, loathsome role as Tibeats, the real star of villainy is Michael Fassbender as Master Edwin Epps. He is creepy, twisted, addicted to hate, and utterly despicable. Both he and Ejiofor shine in this movie in completely opposite ways.
If you go to see 12 Years a Slave, make sure you’re in it for the long haul. It can be tough to watch at times, but it’s sure to get lots of attention come Award Season 2014. It’s as hard to score this one as it is to talk about, but I’ll do my best and give it a 7.5/10. I didn’t not like it, but I feel more like I saw it for the important message it delivered rather than for pure entertainment’s sake.
This review and others can also be found at http://thecinemaid.net/2013/11/25/12-years-a-slave-2013/