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OBPC #86: 12 Years a Slave

August 15, 2014

Rating: 4 stars (out of 4) 

12 Years a Slave (2013): Dir. Steve McQueen.  Written by John Ridley.  Based upon the memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup.  Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Paul Giamatti. Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Running time:  134 minutes.

12 yearsWell folks, we made it. When I started there were 84 films to review, but two years of slow progress have bumped that number up to 86. I’m grateful to end with what I still consider the best film of 2013, even if its disturbing nature had me questioning whether I could rewatch it so soon after the first viewing.

Having done a full review for my blog back in November, I’ll do my best not to repeat myself. Solomon Northup lives as a free man in New York state until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. This is less a narrative than a harrowing tone-poem.

I’m amazed at the the movie’s skillful direction, in terms of staging, camerawork, and aesthetic. McQueen cites the work of artist Francisco Goya as a huge influence on the film, and you can see it in his use of lush, vibrant colors. McQueen’s visual eye is attuned to the horrors of slavery (chained-together bodies in one scene recall Pasolini’s Salo), but also to the psychology of slavery: a ferry-wheel becomes a harbinger of doom for Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Solomon, while straw dolls offer a creative outlet for Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey.

This could have been a film that simply subjugated its main character, confirming our vague yet firm belief that yes, slavery was horrible. But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley are more interested in how systems like slavery are devised and maintained, despite structurally and morally corrupt foundations. Cruelty derives both from the impotence of those who exercise it (Michael Fassbender’s Epps), and the grudging approval of those who don’t (Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford). And what happens when a man who has known freedom opposes such cruelty? His soul stands trial, threatens to break, finds small traces of hope, yet never fully heals.

I want to stress that 12 Years doesn’t simply appall with its imagery, but promotes considered inquiry into power politics. The Academy may have awarded the film for its subject matter, but it deserves more accolades (and thoughtful discussions) based upon its execution.

Link to my full review HERE:



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