12 Years a Slave

I’ll admit, at first I was hesitant about writing about this one. I’ve been wanting to see this film ever since I heard of it…namely because McQueen and Fassbender teamed up again for another fascinating account of the human condition. But then the reviews poured in, and between the pros and my peers I felt uneasy about tackling such a buzz-worthy feature. Is this the film of the decade or just the same song and dance about the abhorred evils of humanity? Well, I guess a little column A, a little column B. Okay, maybe more of column B.

Mm, delicious Oscar-bait.

Mm, delicious Oscar-bait.

Based on a true story, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man of Saratoga Springs – a loving wife, two children, and a skilled violinist and carpenter. One night whilst socializing in Washington, DC, Northup is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery as a Georgian runaway. With him we experience the five stages of grief as Northup chooses between survival and living.

As always, Steve McQueen delivers a cinematically emotional powerhouse – this time fueled by the trifecta of a strong story, a score by Hans Zimmer, and cinematography that perfectly captures an essence of desperation and isolation. Not to mention, this cast is incredible! Now, if only the characters were a bit more dimensional.

First of all, despite the title, it definitely didn’t feel like Northup was enslaved for twelve years.

Twelve years just looks like the morning after a rough night.

Twelve years looks like a bad hangover.

Additionally, I felt as if I was a bit far removed from our protagonist, only because he did very little as a character. Yes, he was surviving, but the film fails to let us better empathize with his woes because he seemed to have little contact with his peers. Or at least, that’s all we as the audience gets to see. Conversation within the film would allow a better grasp at Northup’s turmoil and thought process, as well as to how he adapted to life as a slave. In turn, there would be a much stronger implication of character transformation.

Is it just me, or does Paul Dano get the crap beat out of him in every movie?

Is it just me, or does Paul Dano get the crap beat out of him in every movie?

Upon reading a bit about the real Solomon Northup, we’re dealing with a man that had survived far more cruelties than the film’s Northup did – including but not limited to overseeing and punishing fellow slaves (not just the one instance in the film – even then Fassbender took over). By no means am I commending utter cruelty – as if the scene wasn’t hard enough to watch already – I just feel as if this portrayal did not give the man the praise and admiration that he deserves for overcoming such adversity.

Perhaps this change in adaptation was made out of fear of villainizing our protagonist. If so, that’s an incredibly safe decision, considering that this kind of emotional struggle would be met every day. More so, the addition of such happenings would cause an interesting paradigm shift of sorts, leading to more profound character development. Granted, a point was made early of how Northup refuses to drown in his misfortune, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t human. Not even the supporting cast can move past one dimension: Cumberbatch is a flakey landowner, Fassbender and Paulsen are evil and Brad Pitt’s the friendly Canadian. No surprises here.

After all this griping, I still believe that 12 Years A Slave is a beautiful film worth seeing. Now if only there was more substance to the piece, now that would be something worth buzzing about.

Final Grade: B-

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About reelgirl

Film lover, kitsch enthusiast, and all around neat gal. You can read what I'm up to at Reel Girl Reviews!

Posted on November 17, 2013, in Review and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. First review I’ve read of this film. I read the book in community college and thought it was excellent. I thought it was interesting that you mention the risk of villainizing the protagonist. Some of his remarks in the book would seem a bit antiquated and racist even. At times he seems to look down upon his less-educated peers, as if he had unknowingly internalized some of the racism of the North. There is also a scene where he has to defend a watermelon patch because the slaves keep stealing the watermelons. I’m not sure that would go over well with a modern audience, even if it is a true story. It’s a great read and I’d recommend it because if you can take him at his word it’s a true story. It paints slavery as horribly evil, but those caught up in it in the south not necessarily so. Sounds like the nuances and shades of gray were ignored in the film. I’m hoping to see this movie someday but I don’t think it’s coming to my current country.

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