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by Eric Kohn
August 31, 2013 3:33 AM
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Telluride Film Festival Review: Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave,' Anchored By Brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor, Is a Slavery Movie For the Ages

"12 Years a Slave." Fox Searchlight

Like countless movies before it, "12 Years a Slave" opens with a title card announcing that its material is based on a true story. However, Steve McQueen's startlingly realized period drama justifies its introductory note with each ensuing scene, recreating the experiences of a free black man kidnapped and sold into bondage at the tail-end of slavery in America so effectively that it's almost not a movie in traditional terms; instead, the plight of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plays out like a poetic record of persecution. Initially a settled family man living in New York, Northup eventually faces one bleak reality after another like an accidental war journalist dropped into the center of the trenches, and we're right there with him.

Based on Northup's 1853 bestseller, "12 Years a Slave" owes much to Ejiofor's knockout performance. But it's a particularly noteworthy advancement in McQueen's already impressive filmography, as it funnels the cerebral formalism of his earlier features (the prison strike drama "Hunger" and the sex addict portrait "Shame") into a deeply involving survival narrative. As a result, "Slave" injects its topic with remarkable immediacy.

The spoiler's right there in the title, so McQueen wastes no time establishing Northup's conundrum, finding the solemn man living a hard life of labor picking cotton with his fellow slaves and vainly attempting to retain some modicum of hope. From there, the movie flashes back to 1841, when Northup lives a happy life in Saratoga with his wife and two young children, playing the violin at high society gatherings and seemingly removed from hardships down south. That changes quickly when a pair of men hire him to play a gig in Washington D.C., take him out for drinks ostensibly to celebrate and promptly drug him. Awaking in chains, he's suddenly forced to adopt a new identity as "Platt" and told by the first of many cruel-eyed white men that he's an escaped Georgia runaway. It's here that "Slave" kicks into high gear, using the full powers of film language to convey the despair that eventually consumes Northup's surroundings.

There are echoes of the paranoid urgency and claustrophobic McQueen memorably built around a single setting in "Hunger," but "Slave" carries them to a grander emotional scale. As Northup is thrust on to a boat with other frantic new captures, Hans Zimmer's pulsating score compliments an intense montage of whispered exchanges between Northup and the other prisoners. The strength of the images shot by cinematographer Sean Bobbitt ("The Place Beyond the Pines"), first glimpsed in the prologue, provide an intricate clash of colors -- from the sharp blues of the surrounding ocean to the murky shadows of the ship's belly.

The overload of sights and sounds efficiently sets up the stakes at hand, with Northup struggling to adapt to a new set of rules: More experienced slaves tell him to remain mum about his literacy, keep his head down and follow each awful new order. But Northup, a prideful man with education and culture to spare, holds tight to a spirit of defiance. "I don't want to survive," he asserts. "I want to live." That's just the prelude to a movie in which Northup's valiant convictions get tested again and again.

Though certainly heavy on plot, John Ridley's screenplay gets swept up in Northup's subjectivity, so that rather than being led from one development to the next you're forced to process each revelation about his new environment along with him. It doesn't take long for Northup to see the extremes of his captivity: At shore, he's pushed into a slave auction by a ruthless merchant (Paul Giamatti in one of several bit parts that play less like stunt casting than a reflection of attentiveness to detail); upon arrival, Northup is tasked with playing the violin to drown out the cries of a woman pulled apart from her children as they're sold to a separate client.

The challenges get worse from there: While lucky enough to find some modicum of kindness in a levelheaded new owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup runs into trouble from an envious white overseer (Paul Dano, one-upping the unlikable qualities of his preacher in "There Will Be Blood" with a far slimier creation) who resents Northup's measured intelligence. Their repeated showdowns provide the first test of Northup's ability to withhold his anger toward the system and everybody responsible for putting him in it. 


  • Rosie | November 19, 2013 4:40 PMReply

    This was a first-rate film, but it wasn't perfect. And I'm getting tired of people acting as if "12 YEARS A SLAVE" was the first to really explore the horrors or impact of slavery. It's not the first. It's not even the second. The topic of slavery has been explored in numerous (if not enough) movie and television productions for nearly 40 years. And I'm getting sick and tired of those acting as if "12 YEARS A SLAVE" is the sole accurate portrayal of slavery. Slavery had an impact upon many people and in different ways for centuries. There is no one clear portrayal of slavery here in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world.

    And although Michael Fassbender had some good moments, I found his portrayal of Edwin Epps very over-the-top. I thought John Saxon did a better job in conveying both the brutality and the complexities of the character in Gordon Parks' 1984 television movie.

  • anon | September 10, 2013 7:46 PMReply

    as the character was NOT born a slave and was well -to -do before his capture white people may like the film because strangly they may relate to it as they would think who would i cope being a slave? on the other hand some may be uncomfortable with it as to my knowledge there is no white saviour and the focus is on an articulate intelligent black man which is rarely ever depicted in hollywood. I for one cant wait to see it! mqueen is a breath of fresh air and is one of the most orginal and interesting directors to come out in YEARS.

  • Larry Roberts | September 2, 2013 4:57 PMReply

    Was interested to find out that Gordon Parks had covered the same topic in the made-for-PBS Solomon Northup's Odyssey aka Half Slave, Half Free.

  • Nashoba | September 2, 2013 6:03 PM

    Thanks for the info, Larry. I'll definitely have to check that one out. Perhaps David missed it because it was a TV episode? I didn't see the article in question, so I don't know if he referenced any from television. It will be nice to compare and contrast Chiwetel and Avery Brooks playing the protagonist.

  • diana | September 2, 2013 2:46 PMReply

    this movie sounds like it will finally clear the mundane rhetoric of "redemptive" slave institution such as "the Butler " and "Django"- and finally explore the transatlantic slave trade as the brutal genocide that it was. To me, I see this work potentially matching the realities of the slave trade like the work of Gerima, in his film Sankofa. Im excited.

  • Nashoba | September 1, 2013 7:52 PMReply

    As much as I ABHOR the entire genre, as a fan of McQueen's work, I actually look forward to seeing this. With that said, I'm really, REALLY hoping that this film is the very last of it's kind. We spend entirely too much time bemoaning our past...while the future contentedly passes us by.

    In the last two years alone, we have "The Help", "Red Tails", "Django Unchained", "42", "The Butler", and now this one. If alien visitors were to come down and review the last century of white people in American cinema, they'd see impressive growth. If they did the same for black people...they'd think it was Groundhog Day.

    I didn't realize science fiction, mystery, and horror are like Kryptonite to black actors in lead roles, as far as Hollywood is concerned. Laurence Fishburne was fantastic in "Event Horizon" and "The Matrix"...but that was, like, 15 years ago--and we could certainly stand to see someone other than Will Smith holding down the sci-fi angle, as his films are not the least bit challenging.

    My greatest fear is that we will see the end of automobiles as we know them, replaced by flying vehicles and the like...and we will STILL be seeing new films about slavery and racism--probably produced and directed by black people.

  • Topus Maximus | September 7, 2013 10:17 PM

    So in your opinion, no movies should be made about history that involves black people? I'm very confused. Do you also think we shouldnt make movies about history that involves white people or are you just against any sort of movies that have anything to do with the truth?

  • Larry Roberts | September 2, 2013 5:00 PM

    I recall the David Dylan Thomas article "Why No Slavery Films from Black Directors?" from earlier this year pointing out how few films about slavery have been directed by black directors (looks like he missed the Gordon Parks version of the Solomon Northrup story, though.)

  • Donella | September 1, 2013 6:12 PMReply

    "While there are hints of tension between Epps and a neighboring white man, the script largely sweeps aside the specifics of the drama in favor of generalities that foreground the vividness of Northup's emotional turmoil."

    Well, the movie is 12 Years a Slave, not 12 Years of Being the the Slave's Master.

    The clear protagonist, driver of action, and center of focus is and should be Northrup and the details of Northrup's drama, not Epps. I'm so glad McQueen, unlike past directors of antebellum movies, finally placed the camera where it belonged.

  • Marbles | September 1, 2013 9:04 AMReply

    Fassbender needs to get the Oscar nomination he should have gotten for Shame--or Hunger, or Prometheus, for that matter.

  • j | September 1, 2013 11:59 AM

    I agree he should get it for hunger the other two films werent all that geat .Shame was overrated way overrated.Promethesus fassbender wasnt n it long enough.What really needs to happen is he needs to start carrying movies.

  • caro | September 1, 2013 1:45 AMReply

    i hope they're not a lock for Oscars like Fassbender was a lock for SHAME

  • Not another one | August 31, 2013 7:50 PMReply

    As an african american I am sick of the entire genre. How can politically correct HW and its critics dislike anything that makes the African American community a victim?

    I prefer The Butler as the character was never a victim.

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  • Mike | September 1, 2013 12:44 AM

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  • Jamie | August 31, 2013 11:21 AMReply

    Fantastic review 12 Years will definitely be one of the front runners for the Oscars. I am looking forward to watching it Shame portrayed the life of a sex addict well and I hope 12 years can match it.

  • Mark | August 31, 2013 10:00 AMReply

    I'm hoping that Ejiofor and McQueen are not only nominated, but win. I'm getting sick of seeing white savior characters lauded and the black characters ignored in films about slavery.

  • Peggy | September 2, 2013 7:50 PM

    That's true. As much as I like Christoph Waltz, that seemed like a smack in the face that the black performers were overlooked in a movie about slavery. Better not happen with this one or there will be riots. LOL.