Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

12 Years A Slave still - Chiwetel Ejiofor as “Solomon Northup” and Michael Fassbender as “Edwin Epps.”

Brutal historical drama ’12 Years a Slave’ could dominate The Oscars 2014

For various reasons, great films are usually not released on big screens in Malaysia, only sometimes, if we’re lucky, they might be released if they’re nominated in the Golden Globes and The Academy Awards (Oscars) due to the free buzz. But good thing 12 Years A Slave was brought in this early (considerably) otherwise I’d still be blindly hoping for Rush to win all awards in this season. I would like to take this opportunity to salute GSC Movies and Golden Screen Cinemas (GSC) for occasionally releasing “non-mainstream movies” such as this one despite considering it as a “niche market content” for Malaysia.

12 Years a Slave is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free African-American man in the 1840s who was kidnapped, sold into slavery, renamed as “Platt” and experienced 12 difficult years of harsh treatment which he did not even deserve at all in the first place. Through this film, we can thoroughly witness the cruel nature of the America’s senseless racism and slavery played out with brilliant cinematography and powerful acting display. Like many other critics, I too think that although the film is a painful one to watch, it’s an essential one, not only to serve as a reminder for humanity, but also to show how a film with great respect to an autobiography should be made. Now I know the nominations for the Oscars aren’t even announced yet, I’m pretty confident that this one will be one of the favourites for Best Picture, Director, Actor and Cinematography.

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While director Steve McQueen’s focus is Northup’s survival throughout the years, the storytelling does not neglect the torment that the other slaves had to experience. It’d make you wonder and feel upset for who were born as slaves and had to work till they’re old or till they’re abused to death. Sure, when compared to Django Unchained (2012), it’s probably not as violent, but that one’s a complete fictionised action comedy to entertain, while this one’s based on a real experience of a person who went through 12 years of slavery.

McQueen’s artistic, old skool approach to the film’s cinematography is truly remarkable. There are quite a few long sequences filmed in a single shot at one angle with characters in the background as actively involved as the ones focused in the scene. Some with dialogues, some don’t, both equally difficult to execute. You may refer to the below section for my favourite scene.

The emotionally poignant performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup is quite doubtlessly a definite Oscar nominee for Best Actor. Besides all the long one-shot scenes, the demanding role also required Ejiofor to convincingly act out his character’s change of emotions and sufferings through only facial expressions in closeup shots without dialogues, and he killed it. Michael Fassbender, in his third collaboration with Steve McQueen, did not disappoint as well, playing the cruel abusive slave owner Edwin Epps but it’s harder to say if he’d get nominated for Best Supporting Actor as his performance overshadowed by Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o’s (who plays Patsey).

Director Steve McQueen instructing lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave behind the scene meme.

There are perhaps only two things that definitely could’ve been better – the brief scenes of Northup’s life before he was kidnapped, and Han Zimmer’s lazy score. I’m a huge fan of Zimmer’s music compositions but this time it really seems like he just reused his own work from Inception (2010) as that recognisable tune is played several times throughout the movie, more than Inception itself actually. And about the other thing, the film shows very little of Northup’s comfortable life in Saratoga Springs, New York and his relationship with Parker (Rob Steinberg) the white shopkeeper is underdeveloped. If slightly more screen time were sacrificed for these, it may have been more impactful to emphatise Northup’s sudden switch from a free man living comfortably with his family to a slave who’s often abused.

What I would’ve named the film:

“Brad Pitt, the Accidental Hero”

Favourite scene:

There are quite plenty of crazy long one-shot sequences but if I were to choose one, it has to be the scene where Solomon Northup/Platt is helpless hanged to a tree with a rope around his neck, barely surviving by tipping his toes on the slippery wet mud to breathe, while his slave-mates can be seen in the background, slowly coming out of the shelter and straight to the work minding their own business. One would wonder if the actor was really hanged like that while filming the scene. The other one-shot sequence worth mentioning is the part where Northup is being sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) with the other enslaved victim Eliza (Adepero Oduye) begging to be bought together with her children. The level of difficult to film sequences like these in a single shot is truly high.

Censorship in Malaysia: Only one sequence with nudity was cut for the media screening, but fortunately it doesn’t really affect the scene.

Second opinion: My girlfriend said she couldn’t hold her tears back while watching the film, agreeing with that the film is brilliant.

Verdict: Very depressing, neither comfortable nor relatable to all, but a-must watch for those who can appreciate brilliance in films.

Rating: 4.5 / 5

12 Years A Slave movie poster GSC malaysia release
Based on
: Solomon Northup’s autobiography “Twelve Years a Slave”
Rated: 18
Genre: Biography, historical drama
Running Time: 135 minutes
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenplay by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender

Synopsis: Based on a true story, “12 Years a Slave” is a riveting account of a free black man kidnapped from New York and sold into brutal slavery in mid-1850s Louisiana, and the inspiring story of his desperate struggle to return home to his family. Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated black man with a gift for music, lives with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York. One day, when his family is out of town, he is approached by two men claiming to be circus promoters. Solomon agrees to travel with them briefly, playing the fiddle while they perform. But after sharing a drink with the men, he awakens to find he has been drugged and bound and faces a horrifying reality: he is being shipped to the South as a slave.

Malaysia Release Date: December 26th 2013 (shown at certain GSC outlets only)
Local Distributor: GSC Movies
Studio(s): Regency Enterprises, Film4, River Road Entertainment, Plan B Entertainment

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