'12 Years a Slave' (2013) Movie Review - Toronto Film Festival

12 Years a Slave movie review
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Near the end of 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup -- battered, beaten and defeated -- turns and looks straight into the eyes of every member of the weary audience. Living as a free man in Saratoga, New York in 1841, Northup was abducted and sold into slavery where he remained for twelve long years. Looking into his eyes, questions arise -- What is he thinking? What is the audience thinking? It's a scene that removes the idea of the audience serving as spectators. It's a scene that says If you didn't feel involved to this point, you are now.

12 Years a Slave
Grade: A+

12 Years a Slave"12 Years a Slave" is a Fox Searchlight Pictures release, directed by Steve McQueen and is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. The running time is .

The cast includes Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Adepero Oduye, Paul Dano, Taran Killam, Benedict Cumberbatch, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Michael K. Williams, Quvenzhané Wallis, Lupita Nyong'o and Ruth Negga.

Director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), and his unflinching cinematic eye, delivers a film filled with shame, guilt, hatred, anger, rage, torture, anguish and tears. It rips your heart out of your chest and holds it before your very eyes. It's a painful watch and one I won't likely run to visit again, but this doesn't detract from its quality. Thanks to those few seconds where our eyes lock with Northup's, it makes for a moment where the entire audience is forced to reflect on what they've seen and interpret it in their own way. It's a look that asks you to see Solomon not as a black man, but as a free man, no different than any of us, and it isn't the first time the idea is addressed in the film, but it is the first time the onus is placed 100% on the audience and it's a stroke of genius.

Yet, what must absolutely be mentioned and reiterated is the absolute horror this movie is to watch. A scene involving a hanging leaves a man dangling, with only the tips of his toes negotiating the muddy ground below serving as the difference between life and possible death. Choking and gasping for air, the soft squish of the wet mud is like needles in your ears. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt first focus on his feet, then move to a wide shot as fellow slaves in the background get back to work, leaving the man to hang, afraid to interfere. A couple white people stare from the plantation windows and porch, the whole time the wet squish beneath the man's feet continues as he chokes for a sliver of air. The scene goes on, and on, and on.

Similarly, a scene where another character is whipped, the flesh ripped from their skin into bloody tendrils, is one I had to close my eyes during. Yet, the sound of leather on flesh remained. I stopped counting at 35 lashes before it ended, I maybe saw ten of them with my own eyes, but couldn't avoid the sound of the other 25.

Sound, in fact, weighs heavily on this film. Following Northup's abduction he's chained and tossed into a room with a concrete floor and wooden slats for walls. Every move he makes the chains strike and scrape against the floor at a nearly intolerable level. And when the ambient noise isn't setting the mood, Hans Zimmer's cello-driven score threatens and taunts us with the promise of more to come.

John Ridley (Red Tails) adapted the screenplay from Northup's autobiography, but I can't help but give most of the credit to McQueen whose command of the story is so powerful he doesn't need much more than a location and a few words of dialogue. Combine that with Bobbitt's talent behind the camera and perfect casting from the top down and it's hard to miss a beat.

Ejiofor has delivered the performance of his career and at times it must have been punishing to read what was in store each day. As an audience we're asked to live in Solomon's headspace for just over two hours, but production on the film lasted seven weeks. Add I can only imagine the time Ejiofor took to prepare for the role before filming a single frame.

McQueen's frequent collaborator in Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a hellish man whose conscience rotted long before we meet him in this story. Personally I don't know how an actor can even agree to a role such as this let alone find it within themselves to perform to the level Fassbender achieves here. To say he's a man that's easy to hate would be too kind. He's a man I can't even find pity for. Then again, I can't even pity Paul Dano's John Tibeats, whose IQ wouldn't needs more then five fingers to tally, and the whole time I watched any of these slave drivers I could only imagine the shame and hate they felt for themselves.

The performances, however, don't all belong to the men. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o will break your heart as Patsey. Targeted by Epps as his personal play thing and reviled by his wife Mary (a relentless performance from Sarah Paulson), Nyong'o's contributions to the film are vital in ways I don't want to completely reveal here. It really goes without saying her's is a character we all feel a strong sense of compassion for, but Nyong'o's performance serves to amplify that connection.

McQueen has a talent for directing emotionally raw features, all of them involving some level of dark suffering. Hunger, Shame and now 12 Years of Slave tackle subject matter most would rather bury under the rug and as a result it's always hard to review films of this nature.

Such flawless filmmaking deserves every bit of praise we can dote on it, but at the same time it's not pleasant to watch. In fact, watching 12 Years as Slave is to dwell in purgatory for 133 minutes. If you're willing to subject yourself to its horrors you'll be rewarded with some of the highest level of filmmaking you'll see all year, but in the end you'll be leaving the theater in a stupor.


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More Reviews
  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

    WOW! What a review. I'm so looking forward to this!

  • http://www.smartfilm.blogspot.com SmartFilm

    Wow, definitely have heard nothing but great things about this. Is it significantly better than Hunger and Shame? I thought Shame was really well done but it was a hard movie to love and Hunger was an exercise in plodding.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    Can't wait. My anticipation just shot through the roof.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    That makes it four A+'s this year. And there are still a lot more potentially good ones yet to come out.

    Brad, do you feel like you've already given too many A+'s this year?

    • http://www.cinemaconfessions.com/ Gautam Anand

      It's just turning out to be such an incredible years for films. Easily the best of last 8-10 years. And I don't want Brad to stop giving A+s just because he has given enough this year. He should judge a film on its merit irrespective of how many A+s he has given in past.

      And I won't be surprised if there are more A+s in store. I bet, either "Her" or "American Hustle" or both gets an A+ from Brad.

  • http://letterboxd.com/ragingtaxidrver/ RagingTaxiDriver

    Never have I been so excited to tormented by a film.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RonOnealFresh/ Ron Oneal Fresh


  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Torryz/ Torryz

    Brad, I forgot to ask but was Brad Pitt good? Would another actor have been better or worse?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Xarnis/ Xarnis

    I'm beyond excited for this film. It could be the best of the year.

  • http://www.rabidpictures.com Yaz

    Not surprising in the least. McQueen is on a roll and I love his work and style. The fact that he chooses to explore the subject matter he does is even a greater testament to his career as a director.

  • http://couchpotatodigest.blogspot.com Matt Taylor

    Amazing review. I cannot wait to see this film, as painful as it will probably be.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

    Excellent review, I love the fact that there's still great work being made that entertains and excites but also treats the audience as adults. Good on ya Steve McQueen & crew.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

    Really enjoyed reading that review Brad. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on Brad Pitt's small role, did he fit the story or was he distracting?

  • http://cineenuruguay.com/ Driver

    McQueen deserved a lot more recognition for "Shame" so I hope this puts him on everyone's radar. I'm only saying this because the quality of this film is clear already. I can't wait to see this.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Beautifulm/ Beautifulm

    Glad you liked it ;-)

  • BradyD

    I'm excited to hear your Oscar update, Brad. I can't say I'm estatic to see a film of this sort, but I will most definitely catch it upon its release.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/eoindaly2k11/ Eoin Daly

    After seeing this and Django giving both A+, which would you consider the film that is best for its portrayal of slavery

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu

      Good question...though this seems to have a very different sort of tone...but I'd be interested the answer just as a film overall.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

      Probably 12 Years a Slave. The reason I say that is this is an adaptation of the 1853 book written by Solomon himself. An autobiography gives you a first hand account. While Django is a fictional story with slavery scenes. Those slavery scenes might be true as well, but this would be more accurate due to the source material

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ryguy815/ Ryguy815

    I'm glad you liked it. I'll probably just see this on DVD though.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

    This is easily the most excited I've been over a review all year and this is now for sure my most anticipated for the rest of the year. I know you'll have a massive Oscar update after Toronto Brad, but do you see this having any serious chances or will it just be too dark? I personally wouldn't be surprised if it doesn't get a single nomination while The Butler gets lavished with recognition.

  • http://letterboxd.com/criterion10/ Criterion10

    Wow, absolutely incredible! I've maintained all along that Steve McQueen is one of the great directors working today, and it seems he has another film on his hands here.

    Considering this is currently my most anticipated film of the year at the moment, I will wait until reading your review until after I see the film. Though regardless, that A+ rating is certainly impressive.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/StephanieB/ StephanieB

    Just reading this review has brought tears to my eyes. I don't know how I will make it through this film.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/beng1978/ beng1978

    Could Sarah Paulson be a Supporting Actress contender?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Corbin/ Corbin

    Wow... wow wow wow. An A+!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Jake17/ Jake17

    If this wasn't my most anticipated film for the rest of the year already, it certainly is now. I need to go watch McQueen's other films now.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Winchester/ Winchester

    Interesting review, I'll be sure to try and catch this one in theatres to see how I find it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Thornsy/ Thornsy

    Still just can't get excited for this.

  • http://www.cinemaconfessions.com/ Gautam Anand

    In one of the Podcast episaodes, I had asked a Buy or Sell question

    Brad gives an A+ to 12 Years a Slave.

    which I had asked knowing that the film had a very good chance of scoring an A+.

    I got my answer today.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Silrian/ Silrian

    "[...] the flesh ripped from their skin into bloody tendrils, is one I had to close my eyes during."

    "Personally I don't know how an actor can even agree to a role such as this let alone find it within themselves to perform to the level Fassbender achieves here. "

    "Wow" is my only response to this. I don't know whether to feel stupid about that, but I genuinely really fear watching this film now... I respect fantastic filmmaking with all my heart, but it's that same heart that might not bear watching this...

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/maja/ maja

    Yep - I'm highly anticipating this. I think Steve McQueen may have just reached that top calibre directors level.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

      If not then he certainly should be, Shame and Hunger were so interesting.

  • http://letterboxd.com/gman/ G-Man

    Was already excited - now am a little more :)

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Mv11391/ Michael

    One of my most anticipated movies of the year and now I just got even more excited. Geez, another good grade. This must be the best TIIF ever but it's good that you're enjoying yourself and getting great movies, Brad.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/HelloKitty/ Hello Kitty

    Awesome review. Looks like the top contender in the Award's race.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/icerose/ cynthia dower

    great review -Chiwetel Ejiofor is just one of the best so it was already on my must see list even if now I my excitement is tempered with trepidation

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Newbourne/ Newbourne

    I gotta ask. Which one did you like more, "12 Years" or "Django"?

    • http://letterboxd.com/gman/ G-Man

      Or Dark Knight?

      • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Adu/ Adu


    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/MichaelM./ Michael M.

      Or There will be Blood?

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RandallPMcMurphy/ Randall P McMurphy

    Wow, just reading the review gave me the chills. I love it when the main character looks at the audience, particularly in (500) Days of Summer and at the end of Memories of Murder.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RandallPMcMurphy/ Randall P McMurphy

      Oh, and at the end of Monster. Wow, all those moments are brilliant.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Hudsucker/ Hudsucker

    Woah, A+. Despite the mediocre summer, 4 A+'s in one year makes it a pretty good year in my book!

  • Gregory Kerrick

    Great review, like usual. Love this site. Keep it up!

  • Pedro Audette-Diaz

    Is the style of McQueen's previous films (e.g. long takes, raw tone) abundant within 12 Years A Slave? Asking because the trailer made it out to be kind of Hollywoodized.

  • http://lifein70mm.wordpress.com ViralVora

    What an amazing review! I was excited about McQueen but this review has given me chills! the one time i can remember not being able to bear the violence on screen but didnt want to peel my eyes off the screen was during Blood Diamond ( a personal favourite).

    cant wait to watch this movie now!

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Art/ Art

    One of my most anticipated films of the year. Thanks for the review, it just amps up my anticipation. It just seems a little bit tough to watch, hope I can tolerate it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/MichaelM./ Michael M.

    Knew it would be a knockout! Glad to see all of the praise its been given. Ejiofor, Fassbender and Mcqueen deserve it.

  • ZekeZeke81

    Screw this review. This film is nothing but propoganda. Slaves were rarely tortured or killed. THey were PROPERTY! It's like if someone slashes their car's tires just for fun. Blacks always act like slavery was so horrible, but they were treated quite humanely. They were given a home, fed, and treated kindly. i want to see a film about REAL racial issues like all the black men that keep raping white women every day, the murders of Channon Christiansen and Christopher Newsom, and the Witchita massacre.

  • David M. Smithson

    As one who was, and remains, deeply affected by a fabulous yet extremely painful movie that seems, to me, to be the first-ever glimpse into the reality of slavery in 19th-Century America, it was also painful to see the inadvertent disrespect manifested by the reviewer's mis-stating the title not once, but twice ["12 Years of Slave" and "12 Years as Slave" in the last two paragraphs, respectively] which made me wince after I read an otherwise very insightful review. Accuracy is important and as one who has known from the inside how much effort goes into the production of such works of cinematic art, I feel it is important for reviewers to have their reviews proofread and double-checked or even triple-checked so that the review shows that full attention is given. but let me end with thanks to the reviewer for the keen look into what I feel is not only a fabulous movie this year, but for all time. I wish this movie were required viewing for all junior-high school, high school and college students.