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Reviews » Theatrical Reviews » 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave
Fox Searchlight Pictures // R // October 18, 2013
Review by Jeff Nelson | posted October 17, 2013 | E-mail the Author
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It seems as if every year, we get a film that's about racism and slavery. However, the material is usually handled in a generic and cliché-filled way, yet the Academy still eats it up. It's extremely rare to find this content being filmed in a genuine and fresh way. Director Steve McQueen and writer John Ridley have interpreted this real story of Solomon Northup extremely well onto the big screen. They have taken the difficult road, but they have most certainly pulled it off. By not taking the easy road, every aspect of the picture feels so genuine, that it feels as if we've been transported to this time period. Regardless of who makes the film, most of these pictures generally include an unnecessary amount of overly-sentimental drama. 12 Years a Slave will make audiences feel a high amount of emotions with its use of excellent storytelling and its ability to carry everything with an exceptionally well-crafted character.

In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man from upstate New York. He has a wife and kids, but one day he leaves to travel and play music with a couple of white men. After a successful night, Solomon ends up being abducted and sold into slavery. Being an educated African American man, he's forced to hide who he truly is. Life was made a lot more difficult for slaves who knew how to read and write. As Solomon is sold more than once, each master seemingly becomes worse. After meeting numerous slaves at each location, he has written a book by the same name that explores his experiences and how they affected his life.

Solomon Northup became known as an excellent fiddle-player, which is why he was desired at events as both a free man and a slave. Writer John Ridley has successfully divided this story into a three-act structure that moves rather quickly. The first act allows us to see how Solomon is able to cope with being shipped around like a piece of property and sold for money. He's forced to see other African Americans go through similar situations, but some endured a worse fate than others. He hasn't truly realized what it will take to survive under such conditions, so this is our opportunity to get to know him as a free man. He doesn't truly take on the persona of a slave until he realizes that he must act as if he was raised a slave in order to survive. However, his life is completely changed when he encounters other slaves. They open his eyes to the world that's right in front of him. For example, one woman is sold separately from her two children. She continues to sob in anguish, while Solomon gets tired of her wailing. This results in an argument that will change Solomon's perspective forever.

12 Years a Slave could have easily put the spotlight on violence by watching the slaves get abused for a couple hours. This violence took place during these times, but there's a lot more to this story. Fortunately, Steve McQueen and John Ridley utilize the violence very well. It isn't simply used as shock value, as it's entirely necessary for how the plot progresses. It causes the anger in the audience to build higher and higher, since we want nothing more than our protagonist to succeed. It isn't as outright gory as Django Unchained, but it's definitely more disturbing. The majority of this occurs under Edwin Epps' (Michael Fassbender) orders. However, the filmmakers don't hold their focus on these sequences. 12 Years a Slave is a character-driven motion picture that pays very close attention to disposition. They play extremely close attention to details that are generally ignored by most filmmakers.

It rarely feels as if we're even watching a film for the majority of the running time. The dialogue and the characters are presented in such a raw and genuine fashion, that it provides the "fly-on-the-wall" effect that is incredibly rare to find in modern cinema. Once the credits begin rolling, the audience is sure to be quiet after applauding. There aren't very many motion pictures that will leave its viewers speechless, but this falls under that category. 12 Years a Slave not only left the critics in my screening unable to express words, but it had the theater filled with the sound of sniffling viewers who had tears in their eyes. This isn't very easy to watch, but it will still have your eyes glued to the screen with its rich characters and beautifully-crafted dialogue. McQueen presents Solomon Northup in a very realistic fashion. His relationships with others were quite complex, and that's communicated very well. There's a lot of dark material here, but it couldn't have been expressed any better.

As expected, this screenplay comes with an extraordinary cast. There isn't a single bad performance to report here, since every representation comes across as being so real. Chiwetel Ejiofor is absolutely phenomenal in the role of Solomon Northup. This character has a drastic change in his persona due to the terrible experiences that he's forced to suffer through. Ejiofor delivers this transition beautifully, as it comes across as being entirely natural. Benedic Cumberbatch is great as master Ford. He pulls the audience in and keeps us exactly where he wants us to be. There aren't very many actors who have the dynamic range of Michael Fassbender. Has has once again exceeded my expectations in the role of master Edwin Epps. Fassbender will have you hating his character from his very first scene. He delivers the hatred and ignorance that was expressed in these times to perfection. When Fassbender is on screen with Ejiofor, they deliver energy that is rare to find. There are a variety of smaller performances from actors that work quite nicely, such as that from Brad Pitt.

Director Steve McQueen has been known for his phenomenal visual signature. His previous pictures Hunger and Shame left me with my jaw on the ground. I had the same reaction with 12 Years a Slave. McQueen's expert camerawork couldn't possibly be better. The award-worthy cinematography only brings more authenticity to the picture's story. The same can be said about the costuming, as there are people from a wide variety of backgrounds in this picture, yet everything is genuine. The score is reminiscent of the one from McQueen's Shame, which expresses the dramatic elements perfectly. Overall, this motion picture has a powerful visual presentation that pulls everything together very nicely.

With a running time of over two hours, director Steve McQueen's newest feature goes by quickly. This could have easily turned into a stereotypical biopic, but that easy road has been avoided. Writer John Ridley has provided us with an extremely genuine screenplay that draws us into the story. The characters are so powerful, that it would be impossible not to have your eyes glued to the screen. This is supported by the outstanding performances by the entire cast. Every representation feels so realistic, that it rarely feels as if we're watching something that's scripted. As expected, director Steven McQueen impresses in every area possible. This is a beautifully-crafted piece of filmmaking from head to toe, even though I most likely won't watch it again. 12 Years a Slave is surely one of the best films of the year. It's an emotional powerhouse that doesn't let up.

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