The first thoughts that come to mind after watching 12 Years a Slave is how extremely raw, unimaginable, and seriously disturbing the story is. Directed by Steven McQueen and adapted by John Ridley, 12 Years is a heart-wrenching film based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free African American man who was abducted in 1841 from Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery. The film covers his journey as a slave working on a series of plantations in Louisiana before his release in 1853.
Very little time is focused on Solomon’s former life. Intermittent flashbacks give a glimpse into his career as an accomplished fiddler and a respected family man leading up the circumstances surrounding his abduction. His glossy world in Saratoga, NY is quickly replaced with the horribly graphic recall of being shackled and beaten into acceptance of his new moniker as Platt and sold to a Louisiana plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a seemingly compassionate but morally conflicted slave owner. But after a violent encounter with an overseer, Platt’s circumstances worsen when sold to cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) a disturbing, religious zealot with a penchant towards whiskey with no regard or respect of his slave property. The only compassion from Fassbender’s Epps is demonstrated when he interacts with the young slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) the object of his infatuation and the bane of his envious wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson). Nyong’o gives a breakout performance as an innocent trapped between the dysfunctional couple’s desires, frustrations and malice. Her ongoing struggles paired with interactions with Platt are played with such intensity her story easily takes precedence.
While this is one of the best depictions of slave films I have seen, there are a few things about this movie that could have been planned out better. Ridley’s hurried setup of Solomon’s abduction is a bit unsatisfying. Its very clear more emphasis was placed on, well, the premise on which the film is named, but the lack of backstory and details of his capture feels a bit vacant. McQueen’s segue depicting a picturesque Louisiana provides a questionable pause at times and quite frankly, a bit of a head scratcher. I’m sure it alludes to some narrative from Northup’s book, but the scenes lend very little to the story aside from a quick moment to collect yourself after the constant emotional highs and lows Platt endures. Finally, Brad Pitt who also produced the film has placed himself in a small, but pivotal role of Bass, the Canadian free spirit that becomes the proverbial shining white night (no not that kind), showing compassion and decency it seems Southern whites depicted lack.
Overall, this movie shows the gruesome, authentic, cruelty of slavery, and the lesser-known black abduction trade during the 19th century. From the incredible acting to the candid, graphic depiction of brutality reenacted and horribly visualized upon the slaves, this film is nothing short of genius. Ejiofor and Fastbender are simply amazing. Paired with Ridley’s script and with McQueen’s direction brings Northop’s unimaginable tale to life. This somewhat unsettling story of an innocent man’s triumphs and tribulations through slavery is a journey worth taking full of cheers, tears, and applauds.
Excellent (4 ½ stars)
Rated R for profanity, sexuality and violence
Running time: 133 minutes
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