Here’s a movie summary you’ll see a lot over the next several months as we head to the Academy Awards: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a freeman in New York until he was abducted and transported to Louisiana, where he spent more than a decade as a slave.
Based on Northup’s memoirs, 12 Years a Slave meticulously and brutally captures that time, offering not a celebration of the human spirit because Northup found freedom again, but an examination of what it means to survive when the life you live is not your own.
Initially, Northup is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), portrayed as a pragmatic slave owner, one who recognized hard work and appreciated the contributions of his workers. He’s then transferred to Epps (Michael Fassbender), an absolute horror of a man.
Director Steve McQueen has no interest in letting you off easy. Whether it’s this film, Hunger or Shame, McQueen takes us to some incredibly dark places and forces us to view humanity anew. His odds of winning Best Director, becoming the first black filmmaker to do so, will be another common Oscar storyline. You could make a case for Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) at this point, but it’s impossible to say McQueen doesn’t deserve it just as much. He’s not a visual stylist or a showman here but a storyteller, and that’s what means the most.
Ejiofor’s win for Best Actor is practically a foregone conclusion.
This is such a moving and overpowering film that even noting its flaws seems like nitpicking or even unkind. There is nothing at all holistically wrong here, just a couple notes that are off. But 12 Years a Slave is not a film you define by its precision or imperfections but rather how it balances the uncommon weight of a long chapter in one man’s remarkable life.
12 YEARS A SLAVE, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch. Directed by Steve McQueen Rated R, 133 minutes. Opens Friday in Las Vegas.