Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave


There are certain true stories that everybody knows. We’ve surely all read Anne Frank’s Diary, or at least have a reasonable knowledge of its subject-matter. Conversely, there are some you feel astonished/ashamed not to have encountered. One such story is 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup, a New York State-born free man who was kidnapped in Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery. Considering his book has been around for over 150 years, you would have thought it’d be on every possible reading list. Maybe it is and I just didn’t get the memo, but whatever, I went into the newly-released film-adaptation of the 1853 memoir of the same name with no clue about Northup and his trials.

Director Steve McQueen’s tough, brutal movie sees musician, husband and father, Solomon Northup – played by Chiwetel Ejiofor – tricked into taking a trip with two seemingly genuine businessmen. He wakes up one morning shackled, and so begins a dozen years of being forced to work on plantations in the state of Louisiana. He is renamed, beaten, sold between owners, tortured and treated worse than an animal, with the Old Testament often used as some sick form of justification.

Lupita Nyong'oMcQueen’s vision takes its audience on an extraordinary, emotional, painful journey and his cast are brilliant in their portrayals of characters both good and unspeakably bad. I can’t recall ever having seen a film with so many career-defining performances. Everyone, everyone, is truly magnificent. Ejiofor seethes with anger and quiet dignity, Lupita Nyong’o (pictured, right) is desperate as Patsey, Benedict Cumberbatch is sympathetic-yet-conflicted, Michael Fassbender is a drunk, religious bully and Sarah Paulson is his bitch wife, Paul Dano is a power-hungry weasel and Paul Giamatti is an uncompromising businessman whose morals stretch as far as a coin. Every single one of them is absolutely award-worthy. 

12 Years a Slave might tell the story of one particular man, but it also echoes countless untold tales from that era. And while these brilliantly performed scenes of harrowing cruelty are a valuable history lesson, they’re also a comment on racism and discrimination in general and a reminder that – in the 21st Century – there are still people being trafficked and forced into a life of pain and misery. 

At the end of 134 minutes I left the cinema feeling grateful for my comfortable existence. This is a must-see for so many reasons. I’ll be surprised if I watch a better film this year.



Review by Bobby Townsend.