Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by John Ridley
Based on the book by Solomon Northup
Some movies take the easy way out on hard topics, implying the harder parts or making soft messages like “slavery was bad”. 12 Years a Slave does not go easy. 12 Years a Slave lets you know from the opening that there is going to be nothing held back.
Solomon Northup (Academy Award-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living a decent life in New York. When two men give him a job offer and take him out drinking afterwards, he wakes up in slavery, with nobody willing to listen to him. And over his 12 years in slavery, he has to do what he can both to survive and to become free again.
This is undoubtedly a brutal and intense movie. The fact that there's violence as soon as Solmon gets put in slavery sets the tone for how things will go. And things get worse from there. The shock factor is there in a sense, seeing what Solomon had to be put through, but it goes beyond simple shock to show the kinds of cruel people that were involved. The early slavers seem cruel for having slaves, beating them, and simply treating them as property. This is not a movie that gives a pass to white people or tries to say “But that's what happened back then”, it shows in full that there was simply nobody who cared. But they just barely qualify as generous compared to the eventual slavers of Solomon for the movie's latter half. The Epps (Academy Award-nominated Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson) aren't just cruel, they're vicious. Edwin is an alcoholic who will whip his slaves for no reason, while Mistress Epps verbally abuses Patsey (Academy Award-winning Lupita N'yongo). While Patsey only has a handful of scenes, the Oscar for N'yongo becomes obvious in a heartbreaking scene where Patsey begs Solomon to mercy-kill her.
Everything gets held together by the incredible cinematography. The lush green of Louisiana is directly contrasted with the horrors that happen on-screen. And several silent long takes throughout show more than dialogue ever could. When Solomon barely survives being hanged at one point, it would have been easy to have the aftermath scene last a few seconds. Instead, it's a full minute as Solomon simply stands on his tiptoes while behind him, all the other slaves continue on with their work. And when McQueen does nothing but focus on Ejiofor, his acting ability shines through. A scene of him simply running through emotions at the mere chance of being free is one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.
Visually striking and incredibly acted, 12 Years a Slave takes the issue and the story on in full and doesn't falter for a second in showing what happened.