12 Years A Slave (2014) review

12 Years A Slave (2014) review

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"I stole this from the set of Sherlock."
“I stole this from the set of Sherlock.”
Twitter Plot Summary: Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841 Saratoga, is kidnapped and sold into slavery.
Five Point Summary:

1. Kidnapped!
2. The hanging scene.
3. Cotton pickin’.
4. The flogging scene.
5. Freedom.

Quentin Tarantino may be in hot water by claiming slavery is not seen in cinema enough. This ignores Lincoln, which came out in the same month as Django Unchained. Plus, Steve McQueen (not that one) returns with his third movie covering that exact topic. Unlike Tarantino’s effort this isn’t a pulp Western. Based on the real memoirs of Solomon Northup, 12 Years A Slave tells his story. That of a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. This is where he remained for… sorry, how many years was it again? That’s the extent of the story as far as narrative twists and turns go. But there is plenty of depth to all the characters. We have slave owners quoting scripture. We also have slaves living with their circumstances. There’s plenty to consider.
 
There are several scenes that are powerful. They include the hanging of Northup and the whipping of one of his fellow slaves. Both scenes feature extended uncut shots that emphasise the trauma and the horror. The intent is to make you forget you’re watching a film. These are powerful moments. So much so they remain indelible in your mind for a long time after the film’s closing credits.
 
Chiwetel Ejiofor puts in a stunning and powerful performance as Solomon. An intelligent free man who doesn’t give in to despair, which helps him through all the dark times that follow. Solomon doesn’t develop per se. But there is enough depth to his character in more ways than one. Ejiofor often tells a huge amount of story from a few facial expressions.

Fassbender wasn't wearing trousers or, indeed, underwear.
Fassbender wasn’t wearing trousers or, indeed, underwear.
 
Michael Fassbender also features. No wonder given that he is to McQueen as Johnny Depp is to Tim Burton. His cotton plantation owner Epps is unpleasant on the surface, but he’s got many layers. They reveal themselves gradually as the story progresses. He’s still an unpleasant human being. The characterisation and Fassbender’s performance make him an intriguing figure. Never a sympathetic one, though. That’s not quite the case with Cumberbatch’s slave owner Ford. He tries to be kind to his slaves. As a result, because he doesn’t realise he’s doing it, is all the more monstrous for it.
 
There’s another strong performance from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. She plays a fellow slave of Solomon and is a particular favourite of Epps. It would have been more interesting to see her story rather than Solomon’s. But then that would have potential to be so bleak it would be borderline unwatchable.
 
I will throw one complaint at 12 Years, and that is the fact it never feels like that much time has passed. Everything is difficult and unpleasant, true. But it feels like Northup has only been in slavery for a few months. Or, at best, a couple of years. With that said, it would be an unfortunate couple of years if that was the case. We see almost every possible calamity that could befall a man ensconced as a slave. A few tweaks to show the passage of time would be more than enough.
 
Actually, there’s one more complaint. Despite being minor, it emphasises how futile the journey has been. It’s not a spoiler to say that Northup was eventually freed from slavery (that whole 12 years thing, remember?). The final text scrawl after he regains his freedom makes his entire story almost moot. It statest that despite being a free man justice was not served. The men responsible for his kidnapping did not receive punishment for their actions. Justice should be incorruptible, a constant, applicable to all. Yet despite everything he had gone through the system failed Solomon Northup. And that is perhaps the biggest tragedy of all.

Score: 4.5/5

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