Telluride Film Review: ’12 Years a Slave’

12 Years a Slave Gotham Audience

This epic account of an unbreakable soul makes even Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles seem petty by comparison.

Had Steve McQueen not already christened his previous picture thus, “Shame” would have been the perfect one-word title to capture the gut-wrenching impact of his third and most essential feature, “12 Years a Slave.” Based on the true story of free black American Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and imposed bondage from 1841 to 1853, this epic account of an unbreakable soul makes even Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles seem petty by comparison. But will audiences have the stomach for a film that rubs their faces in injustice? As performed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Northup’s astounding story is too compelling not to connect with American audiences, and important enough to do decent business abroad as well.

The first thing fans of McQueen’s “Hunger” and “Shame” will notice here is the degree to which the helmer’s austere formal technique has evolved — to the extent that one would almost swear he’d snuck off and made three or four films in the interim. Composition, sound design and story all cut together beautifully, and yet, there’s no question that “12 Years a Slave” remains an art film, especially as the provocative director forces audiences to confront concepts and scenes that could conceivably transform their worldview.

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If “Django Unchained” opened the door, then “12 Years a Slave” goes barreling through it, tackling its subject with utmost seriousness. The film opens in a world where slavery is a fact of life and Northup has no recourse to challenge his captivity. Duped and drugged on a bogus job interview, he awakens in shackles and is beaten ferociously when he dares to assert his status as a free man. Some may wonder why he doesn’t continue to protest, forgetting that the word of a black man in pre-Civil War America had almost no legal currency, especially if said individual was unable to produce his free papers.

Assuming Northup wants to survive, a fellow hostage advises, he must do and say as little as possible, in addition to hiding his ability to read and write. “I don’t want to survive,” Northup bellows. “I want to live!” Separated from his wife and children, he faces a situation where the entire society is stacked against him. While not every white person in the film is evil, they willingly participate in a system that demeans their fellow man, and the injustice is too great simply to forget and move on (as Hollywood and society would evidently prefer).

Alarmingly, the few films of the past century to engage directly with the institution of slavery have nearly all come from the exploitation sphere, fetishizing aspects of violence and sexual abuse that McQueen endeavors to cast in a different light. An early scene in which slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) prods naked slaves for the benefit of prospective buyers offers an alarming yet in-no-way-arousing corrective to an equivalent sequence in the tasteless 1971 mock-doc “Goodbye Uncle Tom,” which lingers on the nudity and degradation of such a market. There’s little ambiguity in these unflattering depictions, though neither is there opportunity for audiences to misconstrue them as erotic.

To simplify Northup’s memoir, John Ridley’s script lets the character — stripped even of his identity as he is redubbed Platt Hamilton en route to market — change hands just three times over the course of the film. Two of those owners, played by Benedict Cumberbatch and Bryan Batt, are as decent as the circumstances permit, even going so far as to encourage the fiddle playing with which he previously earned his living in upstate New York. The third, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), becomes the bane of Northup’s existence — a man who justifies his actions according to scripture and prides himself in “breaking” disobedient slaves.

On Epps’ plantation, “Platt” is expected to pick 200 pounds of cotton each day and is savagely beaten every time he falls short. For sheer productivity, none of the slaves comes close to Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a soft-spoken beauty of whom Epps is especially fond, much to the consternation of his severe wife (Sarah Paulson). This jealous big-house matriarch is a familiar character among such exploitation movies as “Mandingo,” constantly jealous that her husband prefers the favors of a slave, and yet Paulson dodges the caricature, even when throwing a heavy crystal decanter in Patsey’s face or urging her husband to beat the life out of her.

Such cruelty is commonplace in the film’s first two hours, and though audiences might not pick up on the technique, McQueen applies the same unflinching approach to these moments that he used in “Hunger” and “Shame”: long uninterrupted takes that force us to absorb the full impact of human mistreatment, as when Northup survives a lynching attempt, only to dangle from a noose for several minutes while his fellow slaves move about in the background, too nervous to cut him down. This scene also perfectly illustrates McQueen’s knack for letting the characters’ behavior inform the sociology of the situation, rather than explaining things overtly through dialogue.

Though arguably too harsh for young eyes, “12 Years a Slave” will serve as an important teaching tool, giving audiences who’ve never witnessed the dynamics of slavery an impression of how the system worked. As in Northup’s near-hanging, we see that even though slaves far outnumbered their white masters, harsh discipline could serve to discourage organization by playing upon their survival instincts. Few scenes this year could be more depressing than Patsey begging Northup to end her suffering, unless you count the one in which Epps forces him to beat her nearly to death — an exchange heightened by the way McQueen constructs the sequence within a single 10-minute shot, as the agitated camera circles her abuse.

Actors like Nyong’o don’t come along often, and she’s a stunning discovery amidst an ensemble that carves out room for proven talents such as Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt to shine. Though the film brims with memorable characters, the show ultimately belongs to Ejiofor, who upholds the character’s dignity throughout. McQueen shrewdly limits everything audiences see and feel to the sphere of Northup’s direct experience, drawing us into his head and keeping us there by including occasional shots in which this hyper-intelligent individual (in many ways the superior of his captors) struggles to make sense of his station.

When it comes time to bestow awards, voters tend to prefer characters who suffer to those who abuse, and yet, this actorly transformation may be Fassbender’s most courageous yet, tapping into a place of righteous superiority that reminds just how scary such racism can be. In many respects, “12 Years a Slave” works like a horror movie, beginning with a “Saw”-style abduction and proceeding through subsequent circles of hell, the tension amplified by a score that blends chain-gang clanging with those same foghorn blasts Hans Zimmer used in “Inception.” As captured by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, however, a rare beauty suffuses even the most infernal situations.

This radiant aesthetic, coupled with the rousing use of spiritual songs, provide a beacon of optimism amidst so much hate, once again proving cinema’s place as the ultimate human-rights medium. It’s a shame that such injustice was allowed to exist for so long — 12 years for Northup and nearly 250 for those less fortunate — and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face.

Telluride Film Review: '12 Years a Slave'

Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 30, 2013. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 134 MIN.

Production

A Fox Searchlight release of a Regency Enterprises, River Road Entertainment presentation of a River Road, Plan B, New Regency production in association with Film 4. (International sales: Summit Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas. Executive producers, Tessa Ross, John Ridley.

Crew

Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay, John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup. Camera (Deluxe color, widescreen), Sean Bobbitt; editor, Joe Walker; music, Hans Zimmer; production designer, Adam Stockhausen; art director, David Stein; set decorator, Alice Baker; costume designer, Patricia Norris; sound (Dolby Digital/Datasat), Kirk Francis; sound designer, Leslie Shatz; supervising sound editors, Ryan Collins, Robert C. Jackson; re-recording mixers, Shatz, Collins; visual effects supervisor, Dottie Starling; visual effects producer, Lauren Ritchie; visual effects, Wildfire Post NOLA, Crafty Apes; special effects coordinator, David Nash; special effects prosthetics, Tinsley Studio; stunt coordinators, Andy Dylan, Steven Ritzi, Lex Geddings; associate producer, Bianca Stigter; assistant director, Doug Torres; casting, Francine Maisler.

With

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp.

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  1. Angela says:

    I can’t believe you used a reference to an insipid fictional character in the dek of this review discussing a groundbreaking film about a real man’s horrific kidnapping, enslavement, and torture. Do you have an editor?

  2. ラルフローレン タオルハンカチ ナイキ ハイカット http://www.shoessroar.com/

  3. Katy says:

    Er, latter, not later. Rant over.

  4. Katy says:

    It is outstandingly offensive to even thinking of comparing the trials Scarlett O’Hara endured to the true story of Solomon Northrup. The former was a fictional character who (to put it nicely) was a bratty white southerner who got her just desserts for her despicable behavior and upbringing. The later was a REAL PERSON who suffered due solely to the color of his skin. While your reference to Gone with the Wind is fleeting, it is nonetheless disturbing.

    • Angela says:

      Agreed, Katy! I can’t believe his editor (if he has one) didn’t question the dek. Yet another example of the failing state of journalism.

  5. Cathleen says:

    Great review. However, what exactly do you mean by your last line, “…and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face.”? I believe Steve McQueen’s family migrated to England from Grenada. Slavery was abolished in that country in 1834 so there is a good chance that his ancestors were enslaved there. This story is as much his to tell as it would be mine or my cousin in the Bahamas or my friends in Brazil. The African Diaspora stretches far and wide my friend due to the injustice of slavery.

  6. J McKenna says:

    ” . . . and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face.”

    Not surprising at all. The British were ahead of the United States in abolishing the slave trade (Slave Trade Act of 1807) first within Great Britain and then throughout its empire. The abolishment of slavery itself in most of the empire came with the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

    I am sort of in disbelief that the true horrors of the slave trade and slavery itself seem to be some kind of revelation to some people. The reality has been a well known fact for generations. We also visited it decades ago with Roots – seen by everyone – and for England’s fight against the slave trade there is the more recent, very excellent British film about William Wilberforce and William Pitt, Amazing Grace.

    Very good review but I disagree about the film being too harsh for younger viewers. Not sure what ages the writer means. We seem all too willing to let our children watch vulgar trash disguised as comedy but it is suggested we shield them from the realities of inhumanity? No. THIS is what they need to see while their consciences are still being formed. I became engrossed in difficult topics such as the Holocaust and slavery at about the age of 10 and it helped to instill a quest for justice that I made my life’s work.

    This movie should be difficult for all ages to witness. But witnessing is what is needed.

  7. Abby says:

    Northup. There is no “r” in the second syllable.

  8. The Kingslayer says:

    Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Tom Hanks and Mathew McConaughey are all going to battle it out for the Best Acting Oscar.

  9. Adam Lipsius says:

    This film captures the grotesqueness of slavery without any eroticizing or fetishization. The audience at Telluride with whom I watched 12 Years was speechless and outraged and compelled by this monumental movie — without ever being turned on. After watching it, the suggestion is ridiculous. Was Schindler’s List holocaust-sploitation? 12 Years a Slave will make you think about justice and fairness and right in a whole new light. It is a remarkable accomplishment and a hell of a film.

  10. Burt Gnash says:

    I read something about this movie last year (http://movies-on-my-mind.blogspot.co.uk/2012/05/slavesploitation-genre-that-shocked.html) in which ’12 Years a Slave’ was labelled a ‘slavesploitation’ picture. The article was very detailed in terms of the canon of slave exploitation movies, and how American cinema always eroticises such an abhorrent element of our collective history.

  11. Whether you agree or disagree with the (excellent) review of this film, there is one truism expressed here that everyone must agree upon. Quote: “It’s a shame that such injustice was allowed to exist for so long — 12 years for Northrup and nearly 250 for those less fortunate — and an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face.”

    An existential prequel to THE HELP and THE BUTLER (and an apogee and apology for DJANGO UNCHAINED)…hopefully a movie that will put in its proper perspective the absolute horror of racism and domestic terrorism that persisted for centuries as America lauded itself as a “democracy” and all men created equal.

    • Carl Weathers says:

      “hopefully a movie that will put in its proper perspective the absolute horror of racism and domestic terrorism that persisted for centuries as America lauded itself as a “democracy” and all men created equal.” Do you SERIOUSLY think that sentiment is lacking? From any academic institution to culture to of course Hollywood are we REALLY lacking discussions on racism and continuously focussing on the USs black eye(s)? Clearly you have no access to tv, radio, movies, print or school.

  12. Angel says:

    Michael Fassbender is an astonishingly superb actor. Truly great talent. Brilliant.

  13. Patrice says:

    FYI: Peter, there was an American who told this story already. Solomon Northup’s Odyssey: “Twelve Years a Slave” (1984)

  14. Patrice says:

    Wow, wow, wow. The review has put me through the ringer. I can imagine what type of experience the film will be!

  15. Contessa46 says:

    Not surprised that Brad Pitt is one of the producers of this film! I saw the trailers to this at the theater and can’t wait for its release. It seems to be a movie of substance and a true portrayal of the time. I minored in American history in college and have read extensively of the civil war. It looks as if, from your review that it will be a most helpful teaching tool, as there is nothing like a visual depiction to set everyone on their heels! It’s important for all to know what injustice the white men did to the black race, it is our history.

  16. I’m going to see ’12 Years a Slave’ at TIFF on Friday and I’m equally excited and nervous to see this film. Being a fan of Steve McQueen’s work has prepared me for his unflinching truism in depicting the actualities of the topic he is filming. I fully expect to see a slave drama unlike anything that has ever been filmed before.

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