Everyone in America is educated on slavery from a very early age. It was a horrific period in our history we should neither forget nor fail to realize the full extent of. After watching Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave not only did I realize I hadn’t even begun to conceive of the true atrocities of slavery, but that even if I never watched it again I would never forget a single frame.
Based on the documentation of Soloman Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery where he stayed for 12 years, 12 Years a Slave is not the Forrest Gump of slavery movies. It’s a powerful, single-celled organism that acts an expose on the period like you’ve never seen before.
This review is destined to be short because I couldn’t even begin to describe the brutality of certain scenes, and they influenced me throughout the surprisingly short two hour runtime. But thank God the performances and technical achievements are astounding enough to gush about.
The set of this movie was probably akin to what I like to call the No Shame Zone, in that nobody held back a single ounce and gave it their all no matter how heartfelt or despicable. Chiwetel Ejiofor is incredibly immersive as Northup in what is the role of a lifetime (the only phrase I’ll ever steal from a Lifetime Original Movie ad). He doesn’t give too much away at once, but exudes all the suffering, fear and anger from his subtle movements of the face and eyes. Michael Fassbender is his acting equal as the ruthless slave owner Edwin Epps whose paranoia, bursts of aggression, and possibly even fear towards his slaves sums up the entire white manner of thinking of behavior of the era. There is also some fine work from the exceptional cast featuring Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt.
Another element I couldn’t help but admire despite it’s often cringe worthy depictions was McQueen’s use of single shot techniques to illustrate the sheer horror inflicted on slaves by soulless masters. Again, I won’t go into details, because saying it just wouldn’t do the same justice, but it’s the one technical element that will forever set it apart from similar works.
To say this movie is easy to watch both in its content and overall single-tone style would be a bull-faced lie. Probably the worst one I’ve ever told (I may be underselling the time we tried telling my mom we were indeed NOT trying to ride our bikes off the roof). It may not be the movie people want, but it is the one they need. Sacrificing entertaining storytelling for a harsh expose on American slavery, 12 years a Slave is essential viewing just for its content alone. Just plan on bringing your own hanky…the ones theaters are providing are totally crap.