12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor is a scene from 12 Years a Slave. (Regency Enterprises)
Chiwetel Ejiofor is a scene from 12 Years a Slave. (Regency Enterprises)
What it's about:

The incredible true story of one man's fight for freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner) and unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist forever alters his life.

What we thought:

Steve McQueen’s epic slave drama has finally hit our shores. It has already won the Golden Globe for best motion picture and it is tipped for Oscar glory. Reviewers have called it a ‘masterpiece’.

Let me start out by saying that I am an emotional watcher, so before going to see the movie I emotionally prepared myself for an onslaught. 12 Years a Slave is not an easy movie to watch. It is brutal and honest and hits all the emotional buttons. There were moments when all I could do was sit in awe at the cruelty of it all. 

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black businessman and part-time musician who lives in New York with his family. We get a glimpse of a man enjoying a happy, successful life. This is, however, short-lived when he is unknowingly lured into a trap, kidnapped and then sold into slavery. He is stripped from his past and his identity and is renamed Plat. And so Solomon’s life as a slave begins. To survive, he has to renounce everything he is.

Solomon spends 12 years of his life working on two plantations. One owned by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) the ‘good master’, whom he finds favour with. After attacking an overseer, Tibeats, (Paul Dano) he is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), the very personification of the evil slave master. He is obsessed with his top cotton picker Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) whom he regularly rapes.  Patsy not only suffers at the hands of Epps but also his cold-hearted sadistic wife (Sarah Paulson).  After years of suffering Solomon is eventually freed with the help of a Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt).

Chiwetel Ejiofor is brilliant in his portrayal of Solomon. The way he conveys the despair, the anguish, the total hopelessness of Solomon’s situation draws you in. He mostly does what he has to survive but we do see some fight in him when he attacks Tibeats. I knew that he would have to face the consequences but I could not help cheer silently when he stood up for himself. The scene that followed his act of defiance is one of the most harrowing in the movie. He is hung from the bough of a tree and for an entire day he keeps himself alive by moving around on tip toe in mud.

The supporting cast also give stellar performances. While Michael Fassbender’s Epps is the loudest villain Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford is a villain of another kind. He sees the barbarity of slavery but reconciles himself to it for the sake of his privileged life. He is a man conflicted by his conscious - he knows deep down that it is wrong but he is spineless. Newcomer Lupito Nyong’o leaves a memorable impression as the tragic Patsy - for her there is no hope.

In 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen brings together a star-studded cast and beautiful cinematography to tell one man’s story which is essentially the story of millions. While Solomon in the end does gets a ‘happy ending’ we are reminded that millions did not. It is without a doubt a must-see.

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