Thursday, 6 February 2014

12 Years a Slave Review: Brutally Honest

12 Years a Slave movie logo

Director: Steve McQueen

UK Release Date: 10th January 2014

Running Time: 134 minutes

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano

What is there to say about 12 Years a Slave? The quick answer is - a lot.  I have not seen a film quite like it.  Okay, so it has been compared recently to "Django Unchained" (2012) but for me there is no comparison.  The two are totally different; "12 Years a Slave" depicts slavery for what it was; brutality, pain, death and wrongfulness. On the other hand, Django uses slavery as a vessel to tell a different story which yes, includes slaves but it is not a 'real' representation of slavery.  Having only watched the film the night before writing this review all I can think about is the movie.  But I ask myself, can I call it a movie?  It did not feel like I was watching a movie. It was a window into our dreadful past as human beings.  A representation that at times was difficult to watch and apprehend. It almost felt like a documentary rather than a movie and I think everyone should sit down and watch this film.
"I don't want to survive. I want to live." - Solomon Northup

We all know, or should do, the story of slavery in America.  We have been taught it in school, college and university but nothing will prepare you for  what"12 Years a Slave" brings to the big screen.  A powerful film fuelled by magnificent performances and quite majestic directing. 

Steve McQueen - Director

English director Steve McQueen who has a vast history with short films is responsible for the masterpiece that is "12 Years a Slave". One thing that stood out for myself was how the film was presented.  For a moment, lets ignore the actors and even storyline and look at the film itself.  The images, clips and timings were all perfect.  You could feel the change in atmosphere throughout the cinema and that happened on scenes where there was no actors, dialect or even sounds.  One shot stood out in particular - a caterpillar eating at the cotton plants in the dry hot fields.  The camera must have stayed on this shot for 30 seconds but it told so much.  It should not have made sense but in the context it did.  It portrayed the pain and suffering in an alternative way compared to a the physical violence that is so prominent in the rest of the film.

The directing in this film made it stand out because it is brave and bold.  It is different. It does what other films have been afraid to do.  A 3 minute clip of Solomon Northup, portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor, hanging, only surviving by balancing on the tip of his toes brings the intensity to another level.  There were other clips as well that make you, as part of the audience feel uncomfortable and disgusted, but so they should.  We should not look away.  This happened, it was real.  It was wrong but it is also part of our history and something we should embrace and accept as being part of us so we can make sure we never allow something similar or the same to happen again.  McQueen portrays the true story of Northup magnificently, it feels honest and real. McQueen's vision for the film is so basic, he wants the audience to hold on to a thought about the film for longer than 5 minutes. Something that he surely achieves.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave


As mentioned, Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup the free man who gets captured and sold into slavery for 12 years.  An incredible performance for the actor and certainly his best to date.  He portrays Northup's innocence perfectly, displaying his despair and desperation throughout the entire film.  A truly outstanding performance, one that was perfect for the film and the story.

Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps the disgusting and haunting slave master.  Fassbender provides an immense performance that is so believable it is unrivaled in this film.  You can be mistaken for hating the actor himself by the end of the film he is that good. A honestly powerful performance. 

Benedict Cumberbatch's character, Master Ford, is one we can sympathize with.  Yes he is a slave owner but he respects them, he is a nice character and does his best to protect Northup.  That being said in the grand scheme of things he still was a slave owner.  Cumberbatch's own depiction of Ford is solid as is Brad Pitt's as Bass.  He turns out to be the savior in the end and Pitt does a good job in this role.

Paul Dano is Tibeats, who works for Master Ford.  He is not a nice character at all and is worse than Epps.  Dano's own portrayal of this is spot on.  A young influenced boy who only does what he does as it is all he has known growing up in the south.

Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps in 12 Years a Slave

"12 Years a Slave" is truly a hard hitting masterpiece that brings a past reality back to life.  This means that there are scenes that are distressful and difficult to watch (two people left and failed to return during my viewing of the film).  This is the story though and like the drug abuse portrayed in "The Wolf of Wall Street" (2013) - it happened, it is real. By showing scenes that entice questions to be asked, films can tackle issues that are often left alone. One question that has been asked is 'Why now?' How come it has taken so long for a film of this sort to be made and be this brutally honest? I believe it is the right time now.  The context of the world is at a place where people feel they can watch it and accept it and this is a good thing.

"12 Years a Slave" is a film that you only need to see once but it will stay with you for a very long time.  I applaud McQueen and his team along with the actors involved for truly bringing this exceptional story to the masses.  It is a intricate film on all levels and I presume will end up coming away with some success at the Oscars. If you are still unsure as to whether you should watch this film then here are '12 Reasons to Watch Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave".'
M+F Rating: 9/10

Reviewed by M+F Reviews.


  1. Very good review. Apart from being disgusted and shocked, most of all I felt rage during this movie. It was brutally honest indeed, it took its time and didn't gloss over a thing. This is one of those great movies you only see once. Not because it's bad but because it's it's the kind of film you do not watch for entertainment. I hope this film will take home a few awards. It's just that good.

    1. Thank you very much Timothy. I totally agree. A masterpiece of a film that yes you would only watch once as it is not a film you watch for entertainment. It really is an eye-opener. Hopefully it can get a few awards. I liked that it was not rushed and it just had a gripping effect over the whole audience.

    2. Beautifully written and I agree with you - this is a film that was a times difficult to watch and stirred up a lot of emotion. I really feel like it will win Best Picture because of the subject matter and how it was presented. It will stick with those who saw it for a long time to come.

    3. Thanks Chele for your comment. Yes, because of the subject matter it will be difficult for it to be ignored at the Oscars. It really is a great depiction and I read somewhere that it is going to be included US school curriculum along with the original memoir by Solomon Northup. This just shows how much of an influence this film has had and how authentic the film is. A true master piece in film making.