TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave Review


Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”

Steve McQueen (the director, not to be confused with the star of the 1968 thriller Bullitt) is making a career out of unflinching and brutally honest truths about humanity. From a prisoner’s life in Hunger to a man’s private demons in Shame, McQueen expands his focus in 12 Years a Slave to a dark period in a nation’s history.

In 1841, Solomon Northup is a free man. Living in New York, Solomon makes his living as a talented musician and is approached by two men with an offer too good to be true. It is, and Solomon wakes up in a dank hole, chained to the wall. He’s been kidnapped to be transported to the South and sold as a slave. The title of the film explains how long his ordeal lasts.

Chiwetel Ejiofor will win the Best Actor Oscar this year. He does amazing work depicting a man trying to salvage hope, and to simply survive, in an impossible situation. He does more with an anguished look than other actors can do with monologues. It’s an incredible piece of work. One thing can be said about this film – it has the best talent roster in recent memory. It’s like the All-Star team of Hollywood. Michael Fassbinder plays against type as a cruel and sadistic slave master, Paul Dano leaves a lasting impression as a weaselly and weak foreman Solomon enrages, Brad Pitt plays the only nice (and Canadian!) man in the film who for some reason has the same “frog voice” accent of his Inglourious Basterds character, and Benedict Cumberbatch as a slave master with a conscience. Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson plays an evil Lady Macbeth type and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives a heartbreaking performance as favoured slave that endures unspeakable cruelties. Yes, I could list more actors.

In addition to its acting, 12 Years a Slave has incredible cinematography. I’d say McQueen films are known for their striking imagery (the dung-scraped wall in Hunger comes to mind) and in this film he focuses on creating beautiful natural vistas to juxtapose the human savagery portrayed onscreen. It’s very well done.

However, the film takes a detached and almost clinical look at the human suffering on display, robbing the images of some of their power. The images are raw, vicious, and assaultive, but two scenes in particular are shot in long takes that undercut (or perhaps the better word is overemphasize) the brutality at the expense of emotional feeling. Take this criticism with a grain of salt. The theatre I saw the film in was packed with tears and anguished reactions. Maybe I was desensitized from seeing a baker’s dozen worth of films in a short period of time, or it could be I’m particularly fond of emotional manipulation (i.e. blasting heart-wrenching violin strings to evoke a reaction), but I found myself to be more intellectually appreciative of the artistry rather than instinctively moved.

12 Years a Slave is fantastically shot and acted. It’s a powerful and unflinching depiction of this brutal period in North American history, but refrains from delivering the sucker punch I think the material deserves.

Grade: B+


2 Responses to TIFF 2013: 12 Years a Slave Review

  1. Madison says:

    Hi! I’m trying to find an email address to contact you on to ask if you would please consider adding a link. Thanks and have a great day!

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