Why 12 Years a Slave is Awesome

An unrelenting, harrowing look at the slave trade”

Hot off winning Best Film at the Golden Globes and with a slew of other nominations at the upcoming BAFTAs and – we can only assume – the Oscars, it's safe to say Steve McQueens latest is one of the big hits of the past year. I finally sat down last night to watch it, and to see if it lived up to the awards show hype, and in many ways, it does.

12 Years a Slave follows the story of Solomon Northup (played exquisitely by Chiwetel Ejiofer, who narrowly missed out on a Best Actor Globe), a free black man from New York in pre-Civil War America, who is betrayed and sold into slavery and spends 12 Years desperately clinging to his dignity and his hope for a chance at freedom. It is a powerful inside look at the slave trade, made that much more harrowing because it is based on real events – Solomon was a real person, who lived all these events before penning a book sharing the same title and becoming a major activist for the abolition of slavery.

Chiwetel Ejiofer gives a raw performance as Solomon Northup”

There is a lot to praise about this film; there is some phenomenal acting, most notably from Ejiofer, who brings raw pain and emotion to the leading role, and Michael Fassbender, who brilliantly plays the twisted and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps. These two are the very core of the film, and it is mesmerising to watch. There are also some standout supporting performances – my favourites being Benedict Cumberbatch as Ford, Solomon's first Master, a man clearly uncomfortable with the slave trade, but unwilling to or unable to stand up and do anything drastic, and Paul Dano as Tibeats, a jealous and spiteful hand on Fords estate that continually butts heads with Solomon. Finally, Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong'o were admirable as Mistress Epps and Patsey, the black slave that Master Epps lusts after. The rest of the cast range from decent to good.

Fassbender oozes malice”

It's safe to say that this film is not for the faint of heart, and it's portrayal of slavery is brutal and bleak, and leaves practically nothing to the imagination; from lynchings to whippings that literally burst open skin before your eyes, McQueen does not shy away from long, lingering, horrifying shots. It makes for an often uncomfortable, harrowing viewing, and is a stark reminder of just how terrible life was for black people under the oppressive heel of white slavers.

The style is very art house, in that a lot of scenes are shot in single takes, with peculiar framing and lingering shots. McQueen often likes to observe his characters in near silence, soaking us in their raw emotion. As a result, the film has an odd, almost lethargic pacing throughout – which is one of only two critiques I have of the film; the pacing is so off beat that it was difficult for me, as a viewer, to maintain intensity. At 2 hours and 15 minutes run time it's not a short film, yet it seems even longer and – my other critique - very little seems to happen in that time. The crescendo – if you can even call it that – leading up to the finale, is so subdued it sort of just happens, and I was left feeling somewhat unsatisfied and numb. Mind you, that's likely the intention of the film, with its unrelentingly depressive tone.

Dano gives a great turn as the spiteful Tibeats”

I have great difficultly rating this film. On the one hand, it's a cinematic marvel of raw emotion and discomfort, and is certainly one of the most eye-opening reminders of the horrors of slavery; on the other hand, its pace is off-putting, it sacrifices story in favour of scenes and its tone is so unrelentingly bleak that even the ending felt miserable. Regardless of the latter, it is absolutely worth a watch, and as such I am favouring the former for my rating. Go and see it; you might leave feeling depressed and even nauseous, but once that has passed, you'll be a better person for it.

Final score: 8/10

This has been Blacksmith for The Awesome Update.

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