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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

Faced with the daunting task of imbuing a remote dilemma with realism, Ejiofor matches McQueen's filmmaking skill. The actor's expression alone conveys a wholly unique set of emotions, blending exasperation, fear and rage that intensifies with each scene. McQueen gives his talent the same room to breathe that he does the story, peppering the movie with patient long takes that often build into exceptional set pieces: In one near death encounter, Northup stands on his tip toes with a noose around his neck, gazing and gasping at the surrounding plantation while the minutes crawl by. Later, at a funeral for a fallen slave, his fellowmen deliver a moving rendition of the cotton field staple "Roll, Jordan, Roll," and McQueen's camera presses in on Ejiofor's face as the man gradually joins in. The scene effectively completes Northup's transformation into the role of victim that he initially resisted. With his slow-burn approach, McQueen makes the air of defeat into an unnervingly visceral encounter.

Faced with the daunting task of imbuing a remote dilemma with realism, Ejiofor matches McQueen's filmmaking skill.

The technique serves to elaborate on the decade-plus period covered over the course of the movie's 133 minutes. During that passage of time, the mounting sense of dread never lets up. At the one-hour mark, Northup finds himself on the plantation of depraved slave owner Edwin Epps (a convincingly monstrous Michael Fassbender), whose harsh antics provide the ultimate threat to Northup's stamina. 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.

On Epps' planation, the slave encounters a suicidal woman (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) subjected to virtually every form of abuse, which places Northup's desperation in the context of tragedies even deeper than his own. With the horrible finality of scenes where he witnesses other slaves meet worse fates -- whips and nooses figure prominently in the plot -- Northup takes on the role of spectator in a drama that predated his arrival.

It's all so credibly enacted that once Brad Pitt (whose Plan B productions produced the film) arrives in a bit part as a kind-hearted Canadian who visits the plantation and speaks out against slavery, the character's messianic qualities seem like a bit much. Yet by the time we get there, it's hard not to plead for an end to Northup's battle. More than a powerful elegy, "12 Years a Slave" is a mesmerizing triumph of art and polemics: McQueen turns a topic rendered distant by history into an experience that, short of living through the terrible era it depicts, makes you feel as if you've been there.

Criticwire grade: A+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well-received after its sneak peek at Telluride, "12 Years a Slave" should continue receiving accolades as it next plays in Toronto and New York. Ejiofor is a lock for Best Performance in the Oscar race, as is McQueen and his movie.

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  • 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.