Cinema Review: 12 Years A Slave | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Tuesday, August 11th, 2020  

12 Years A Slave

Studio: Fox Searchlight
Directed by Steve McQueen

Oct 18, 2013 Web Exclusive
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12 Years a Slave is bound receive comparisons to last year’s Django Unchained, if only because of timing and subject matter. The comparisons should end there. While Django viewed slavery through a safe lens of cartoon violence and smart-ass dialogue, 12 Years a Slave grabs the audience by the neck, dragging it through the mosquito-infested swamps of America’s greatest mistake.

The film is based on the true story of freeborn African-American Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). A violinist by trade, he agrees to play in a traveling circus that ends in Washington, D.C.. Bringing success to its white proprietors, they treat him to a celebration and far too much wine. He blacks out. When he awakes, he’s locked in some unholy dungeon, bound in chains, duped by his supposed peers who have sold him into slavery. The slavers say he’s a runaway from Georgia, and any insistence otherwise earns him a beating. He’s quickly transported south and shuffled from auctioneer to master to overseer before falling into the hands of the sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner who uses bible passages to justify his cruelty. It’s nothing short of a nightmare. Northup’s value is now measured in muscle strength. Behind the kindest hand is a veiled opportunist. Survival is paramount and requires unspeakable acts. Unfortunately, Northup is a man burdened with a conscience.

Screenwriter John Ridley takes a story that’s episodic in nature and crafts a narrative that manages to build in intensity and emotion for over two hours without feeling repetitive. The storytelling is reserved and—except for some forgettable moments early on—favors drama over cheap emotion. It would be too easy for the filmmakers to dismiss Epps as a monster—rather, as just a monster—but Ridley and director Steve McQueen offer a logical but twisted worldview, one that could motivate a human being towards such violence. Yes, the film is incredibly violent, but McQueen—whose Shame at times felt impersonal and exploitative—handles it with tact, leaving a surprising amount in the background; the violence is felt through tone and context. It’s all accompanied by a moving score from Hans Zimmer, which manages to be noticeable without being patronizing, echoing his quiet, unassuming work on The Thin Red Line.

Fassbender—in his third collaboration with McQueen—haunts over the film, forcing himself into any scene at will. His slaves are property, and he’s willing to beat away any humanity that could make him think otherwise. Chiwetel Ejiofor charts Northup’s sad, downward path in his general expression. An intelligent man silenced by the whip, weighed down by years of labor and abuse; yet Ejiofor maintains a certain dignity and a glimmer of hope in his eye. Not overlooked is Lupita Nyong’o as the young, quiet Patsey, a beautiful slave who becomes the object of Epps’ fascination and the victim of the unspeakable cruelty that ensues. Born into slavery, she knows no other life and appears void of hope. In the dark, she confesses hope that a second, more forgiving life might await her. Perhaps that would be justice. By the end of 12 Years a Slave, the most hardened cynic will hope she was right.

Author rating: 9/10

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Average reader rating: 10/10


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