’12 Years a Slave’ most powerful film of 2013

Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in '12 Years a Slave' from director Steve McQueen — Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars in ’12 Years a Slave’ from director Steve McQueen — Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight

The story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who is kidnapped in the northern United States and eventually enslaved in the South, is a gut-wrenching testimony to the endurance of the human spirit and the unfortunate history of America. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, recent Oscar winner for Best Picture, performs an admirable job in bringing Solomon’s life and resulting lessons to the big screen. With a commanding performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’O as a girl he meets on the plantation, the movie is dramatic, difficult and deserving of accolades.

When Solomon finds himself facing a life of slavery under the hurtful whip and demeaning remarks of slave owners Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson), the loss of freedom can easily be witnessed in his eyes, which soon begin to well with tears. He has left his family and freedom behind in New York, and now he must endure this system of racism and oppression, perhaps forever.

Nyong’O plays Patsey, a young woman who faces equally difficult obstacles. Edwin takes Patsey on as a special project, and Mrs. Epps doesn’t like the preferential treatment. It doesn’t take long for violent retribution.

The supporting cast also includes Brad Pitt and Benedict Cumberbatch, although most of the focus remains on Solomon, Patsey and Edwin. Through their eyes we see the hellish reality of slavery, from the personal violence of whipping to the unbearable living conditions. Solomon, Patsey and the other slaves on this plantation are prisoners with a deranged warden, and their only means of momentary escape can be found in a spiritual song or when they band together to hold one another in despair. The sadness that runs through 12 Years a Slave makes the watching experience a tough one; it has been a long time since Hollywood has seen such a visceral look at American history.

McQueen, better known for his indies, keeps a personal touch to Solomon’s story. This is not the same structure of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln or Edward Zwick’s Glory. History happens in every scene, but the historical framework stays outside the narrative. Instead, the focus remains on Solomon and his unbelievable story of having freedom and losing it by way of an abduction. Once Solomon finds himself at Edwin’s plantation, the outside world is left behind, and we remain with this man and his quest to keep his head held high, all in the hopes of seeing his family again.

The visuals of the film are striking. From the brutality of the slave owners (and McQueen does not hold back) to the verdant fields that Solomon and others work in, the film is an uneasy snapshot of an era with so much contradiction. What happened to these men and women was so wrong, and when McQueen places a scene from the North, which seems richer and more open, next to a scene from the South, which seems like a denizen for debauchery, the parallels are mind-boggling to comprehend. Through McQueen’s film, thanks to a script by Oscar winner John Ridley, the audiences comes to know the importance of telling these stories of history, no matter how uncomfortable they make 2014 moviegoers feel.

This happened, and we need to make sure the lessons and stories from the men and women who gave their lives and toiled in these fields are not forgotten. It’s important and appropriate that 12 Years a Slave puts these issues back on the forefront of American conversations.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • 12 Years a Slave

  • 2013

  • Directed by Steve McQueen

  • Written by John Ridley; based on a book by Solomon Northup

  • Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’O, Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender

  • Running time: 135 minutes

  • Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality

  • Rating: ★★★★

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

2 thoughts on “’12 Years a Slave’ most powerful film of 2013

  • April 5, 2014 at 12:07 am

    How they took such a heartbreaking story and made a movie without any tension, emotion or drama is beyond me. Easily the most overrated film ever made about slavery. Uninspired direction and acting.

    I hope a decent adaptation of “12 Years a Slave” is made one day. Or even better, a film based on the amazing book “Jubilee.”


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