12 Years a Slave: Film Review

12 Years a Slave | Reel ThinkingOne of the most highly regarded films of the 21st century, 12 Years a Slave is a Best Picture winning film, adapted from a book of the same name by the subject of the film: Solomon Northup. The film follows Solomon, a free black man in the Northern territories of the United states, a couple decades before the civil war. Solomon is lured further south under false pretences, kidnapped, and sold into slavery where he remains for 12 years, separated from his wife and family. The events of the film are a true story, as detailed in book, 12 Year a Slave, by Solomon Northup. Northup is portrayed on screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The cast also includes Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, and many more. The film was directed by Steve McQueen, and adapted to the screen by John Ridley.

I want to start by stating unequivocally that 12 Years a Slave is one of the best films I’ve ever seen. I haven’t done much research into the exactness of the historical representation of Solomon and his story, but something about the way the story is told makes it ring with authenticity in a way that I don’t know many biopics have matched. His story is visceral and stinging with injustice, aided in the way his character, historically accurate or not, is constructed. Ejiofor is sublime, just show-stopping, as the educated, principled man dropped into unthinkable circumstances. He had a way of giving every emotion its fullest effect throughout the film, which ranged straight through to a level of shock and horror that razes your heart to the ground. He also brought this interesting…schtick to the character, and it was aided by the writing, pf course, which we’ll get to in a moment, which was that even in his subjugation, he demanded a certain amount of respect. It was a sticking point that drove his conflict with Paul Dano’s character, which, again, we’ll get to in a moment. It added up to an unforgettable performance, that provided an image of Solomon that one was eager to commit to.

But Ejiofor was not the only stand-out in this film. 12 Years is arguably the strongest collective performance I’ve ever seen. Ejiofor, Nyong’o, and Fassbender, who control the last hour-and-a-half or so of the film’s runtime, are so unbelievably good, that you actually half forget about brilliant showings from Cumberbatch and Dano, who’re both incredible. Sarah Paulson, who’s only in four or five scenes in the film, is a goddamned scene-stealer next to Michael Freaking Fassbender! It’s unbelievable. Brad Pitt is in even less of the film, but makes for one of the most important characters in the story and a heartfelt-ness to match it. Every single actor on screen brings everything they have to the table, and it’s magnificent. There are two or three scenes, particularly the whipping scene (anyone whose seen the film knows exactly what I’m talking about) leave you and your heart in absolute tatters, courtesy of one of the best ensemble performances you’ve ever seen.

But this film is an all-round success, and as much credit goes, indeed, to the adapted screenplay, for which John Ridley won the Oscar. Between his and Steve McQueen’s work, 12 Years A Slave is an extremely impressive stylistic film. There are moments of visual profundity that leave you tearing your hair out (the hanging scene outside Cumberbatch’s estate is a very affecting example), and sum up to a really effective display of a kind of life. That’s a success on a slightly more intellectual level, but the film’s most prominent achievements are emotional. 12 Years fully delivers on its emotional promise, capturing the crushing grief and despair of the sin of slavery, and, the almost surprising emotion of being liberated from that life. The last scene of the film actually ends up feeling less happy as much as just generally overwhelming.

That rush comes from having been on a journey with this man, and there is no better way to describe this film. 12 Years a Slave is a journey, one of extreme emotional tension, tragedy, and growth. It’s a hard thing to write, and the weightage of the various subplots is masterful. This is the kind of film that makes someone like me feel like they’ll never write again, for want of the worthiness to construct something quite as untouchable as this.

The bottom line on 12 Years a Slave is a simple conclusion: this is one of the best films I have ever seen. It killed like a knife through the heart, hitting every emotional note exactly as it ought to have. It’s an incredible homage to Solomon Northup, beautifully portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, and crafted near-perfectly in every other way possible, including an ensemble acting performance that blew anything I’ve ever seen before out of the water. It’s a viscerally emotional film, watch it only if you have the emotional bandwidth at that particular moment to deal with it. If you can, there are few better films.

– Aman Datta

Aman’s Score – 91/100                                                               Aryamaan’s Score –