12 Years a Slave (2013): Steve McQueen's treatise on despair, solitude, lust and sadomasochism

A harrowing film about racism and slavery

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12 Years a Slave, Poster, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
12 Years a Slave (2013) By Steve McQueen
Our Rating: 8.0
IMDb Ratings: 8.6
Genre: Biography | Drama | History
CastChiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch
Country: USA | UK
Runtime: 134 min

Summary: In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

12 Years a Slave is a 2013 British-American historical drama film directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen. Written by John Ridley, the screenplay of 12 Years a Slave is based on an 1853 autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup. 12 Years a Slave can best be described as a propaganda film censuring stigmas of racism and slavery in the antebellum United States. Made in the vein of the Blaxploitation films of the '70s, 12 Years a Slave is a powerful social commentary that poignantly depicts the heinous, racial exploitation of the Black people at the hands of their White masters who atrociously abuse them in more ways than any sane human being can possibly imagine.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave
McQueen is known to infuse his films with a singular sense of realism that inevitably elevates the subject matter, pushing it to grapple with far more complex motifs than what it seems set to achieve initially. While his first two films - Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011) - were more personal and less commercial, his third film, 12 Years a Slave, even though it has many of McQueen's central elements of despair, solitude, lust, sadomasochism, etc., is his most accessible film.

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
Benedict Cumberbatch (left) in 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave presents the heart-wrenching tale a free black man from Saratoga Springs, New York who is deceived, abducted and sold into slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the part with great conviction; an Oscar nomination is more or less guaranteed. Ejiofor is greatly supported by an all-star ensemble cast that includes the likes of Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, and Paul Giamatti. 

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
Michael Fassbender (right) as Edwin Epps
And while Giamatti, Dano and others are quite impressive in their respective cameos, it is Fassbender who steals the show, and if there ever were any performance that merited an Oscar statuette, it's Fassbender's mesmerizing portrayal of Edwin Epps - a sadistic cotton planter who prides himself in being a "nigger breaker". Fassbender plays the challenging part with great aplomb, goes through a gamut of emotions, matching every ounce of unrestrained brutality with equal degrees of feebleness and abject vulnerability. Fassbender is easily one of the most talented among the current crop of international actors. Speaking of performances, Lupita Nyong'o deserve a special mention for her exceptional portrayal of Patsey - a young female slave who is repeatedly raped and abused by Epps while working on his plantation.    

Lupita Nyong'o (centre) as Patsey, Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup,  in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
Lupita Nyong'o (centre) as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave
12 Years a Slave is not an easy film to watch, especially for those who are repulsed by brutality and torture. The graphic content of the movie can easily unsettle an uninitiated moviegoer. The gory and ostentatious manner in which the movie depicts the brutal slavery practices like flagellation and whipping places it in a very unique category of exploitation-cum-propaganda films. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and other plantation slaves, in 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen
A Still from Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave
That being said, 12 Years a Slave is lifted by McQueen's able direction, powerful performances delivered by the movie's ensemble cast, a very different kind of a musical arrangement from Hans Zimmer bolstered by the use of western classical and American folk music, and Sean Bobbitt's sumptuous cinematography. Slavery may be a matter of past but human oppression, especially of the weak, in its various forms continues to plague our world which makes 12 Years a Slave quite relevant even in today's modern age. Serious viewers just cannot afford to miss it!

Readers, please feel free to share your opinion by leaving your comments. As always your valuable thoughts are highly appreciated!  


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  1. I am looking forward for this one. Has it released in India Yet?

  2. Nice review. I suspect this will be my favorite movie of 2014 for quite a while

  3. Glad you liked it... and yes, you are right... it would be a difficult film to beat or even match!!! :-)

  4. Prithwi, I couldn't have agreed more with you about Mr. Abraham being a film scholar... he's been a great inspiration behind my watching and reviewing great films. Glad you like the pic!!! :-)

  5. Great review Murtaza, I have huge respect for Steve McQueen for the film making skills he possess. Though I will always choose Hunger over 12 years a slave as my favorite McQueen film, but this winning the Best Picture is totally justified. Fassbender as Edwin Epps was breathtakingly evil, glad you gave him an extra mention.. A great review for a great film..

  6. Glad you liked it, Amrit... McQueen's film, more than anything, it's about power and its abuse... no doubt, it's a great film but it's also McQueen's most accessible till date. If it wouldn't have been for Brad Pitt's association, the film wouldn't have manage to get such serious attention and would have suffered the same fate as McQueen's previous films. As to Fassbender, he is one of the most talented actors around... he deserves the coveted statuette more than anyone... and I used to say the same about Matthew McConaughey who finally bagged one.


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