12 Years a Slave

Nov 1, 2013

One of the best films of 2013.

Grade: A

Director: Steve McQueen (Shame)

Screenplay: John Ridley (Red Tails), based on Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Salt), Michael Fassbender (Shame)

Rating: R

Runtime: 133 min.

by John DeSando

“The aim of art, the aim of a life can only be to increase the sum of freedom and responsibility to be found in every man and in the world.” Albert Camus

No other film about slavery need be seen once you have witnessed the unforgettable 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen with horror and grace. This adaptation, based on Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave, seems to perfectly translate the suffering and eventual triumph of African Americans in the antebellum South. Chiwetel Ejiofor as kidnapped and enslaved freeman Northrup should be Oscar nominated as well as the film and other supporting actors.

As Northrup endures a thousand indignities and brutal torture in his twelve years of being kidnapped, director McQueen, with the invaluable support of lenser Sean Bobbitt’s lush landscapes and writer John Ridley’s ear for the telling comment, never takes the torture over the top, as Mel Gibson did in The Passion of the Christ. Northrup dangling at the end of a noose for hours with only his toes between him and eternity is more harrowing than anything Gibson dreamt up. That Solomon hanging sequence can be matched only by slave Patsey’s (an impressive Lupita Nyong’o) whipping in an extended scene of at least 10 unbroken minutes.

Although each set piece may have an overt message, e.g., Brad Pitt’s Bass has a scene with Solomon that illuminates an enlightened Northerner’s stand against slavery, the film concentrates on the personalities as well as the issues.

As interesting as Solomon is representing a race wronged, Epps (Michael Fassbender), the cruel estate and slave owner, well embodies the flawed principle of ownership that drove the South’s economy and its emerging loss of the slavery franchise.  While Epps’ misanthropy is evident, less obvious but just as vicious is his wife’s (Sarah Paulson), whose Mandingo-like jealousy of her husband over his attention to slave Patsey impels her to seek an unseemly revenge on the young woman.

In contrast to Bass’s humanity, this couple takes the honors for horror duo of the year in one of the best films of 2013.

“I don’t want to survive.” “I want to live!” Solomon Northrup

John DeSando co-hosts WCBE 90.5’s It’s Movie Time and Cinema Classics, which can be heard streaming and on-demand at Contact him at