September 6, 2013



Steve McQueen (the filmmaker) doesn’t take it easy on audiences.  His first feature Hunger provided an excruciatingly detailed look at the fatal hunger strike of the Irish convict Bobby Sands, and he followed it with Shame, a cooly unsexy portrait of the ravages of sexual addiction.  His new film 12 YEARS A SLAVE is exactly what its title describes, 132 virtually unrelieved minutes of human misery, abuse and heartbreak–all of it based on a true story.

Any slavery story is by definition an awful one, but Solomon Northup’s (played in the film by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was somehow even worse.  Northup was a cultured, free man, living a seemingly safe life with his wife and children in New York before the Civil War as a talented violinist, when he was tricked and abducted to the Deep South, where he served a dozen years as a victim of overwhelming physical and psychological violence.  (The film, written by John Ridley and adapted from Northup’s own memoir, doesn’t provide any explanation of why the slavers would have undertaken a relatively complex con to capture a successful and educated man like Northup, when presumably New York had easier pickings available.)

We travel with Northup as he is brought to a slave-trader (Paul Giamatti) and to an initial owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) who seems–relatively, of course–lacking in cruelty.  Northup’s destiny, though, and the main action of the film, takes him to the Louisiana plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who has been featured in all McQueen’s films).  Epps is a monster who beats his slaves unmercifully out of a belief that the Bible justifies such treatment, beds (and nonetheless abuses) the young woman Patsey (the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o) and demands impossible results from his workers in the fields.  Nor is there any relief elsewhere on the plantation, as Epps’s wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) takes out on the slaves her bitterness at her husband’s fixation on Patsey, and the oversser Tibeats (Paul Dano) is a sadist.  Northup tries to preserve the shreds of his humanity in one way or another, but more often than not his attempts are crushed.

This is no one’s idea of a fun evening at the multiplex, and it makes mainstream historical dramas about race like The Butler and The Help seem heavily watered down by comparison.  Whether there will be an audience for such detailed agony on screen comparable to the success those films have had is an open question.  Certainly McQueen has made the uncompromised film he intended.  Working with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who also shot Hunger and Shame), McQueen, who began as a visual artist himself, structures some of the most unbearable sequences of 12 Years a Slave without editing, in unblinking single takes that refuse to give viewers any of the shelter conventional film grammar provides.  It’s powerful, to be sure, and also difficult to watch.

Ejiofor often has little dialogue, and his face has to reflect all the horror and complex emotions he feels as he’s forced to repress his education and intelligence in front of the masters, and comes to know the life of the slaves.  It’s a memorable performance.  Fassbender has never been one for half-measures on screen, and he imparts a comprehensible account of the awful mindset of the man he’s playing.  Alfre Woodard, as a woman who’s found her own place in the plantation world, and Brad Pitt (also one of the producers) as a Canadian builder on the Epps estate, provide two of the very rare bits of humanity in the film.

12 Years A Slave takes on a great deal, and one might say that with the exception of Patsey, the slave characters are relatively lightly-drawn, and that the unrelentingly devastating tone can eventually lose impact through sheer repetition.  As a movie, it’s not out to make any friends.  It’s not a film, however, that anyone is likely to forget.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."