12 Years a Slave Review
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Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave took home the big prize at Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony. Here's another look at the Oscar-winning Best picture, which is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.


Director Steve McQueen is known for his gritty, no-holds-barred kind of films—like 2011’s controversial NC-17-rated drama, Shame. So when the edgy director decides to make a film about slavery, you can expect a gut-wrenching experience—and, with 12 Years a Slave, he delivers nothing less.

Inspired by a remarkable true story, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man who lives in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and two children. While his family is out of town, Solomon is offered a temporary job playing the violin for a circus that’s traveling through Washington, D.C. But instead of returning from the job with some extra money for his family, he’s kidnapped and forced into slavery.

  
 
The film follows Solomon through his years as a slave, working with some agreeable men, some difficult men, and some violent, power-hungry men. Along the way, it also tells the stories of other slaves whom Solomon meets throughout his journey, depicting the horrible injustices that they’re forced to bear in order to survive.

As you might expect, watching 12 Years a Slave is not an enjoyable experience. It’s an emotionally exhausting film, filled with violent characters who prosper and gentle characters who are forced to endure unimaginable brutality. It’s often a difficult film to watch—no matter what color your skin. Even though we’ve all been exposed to the horrors of slavery before, the things that play out on screen will break your heart and make you want to cover your eyes.

The stories, meanwhile, are fascinating. Some—like Solomon’s—are heartbreaking stories of injustice. Along the way, you’ll see senseless beatings. You’ll see children separated from their families—all for the wealth and prosperity of the slave owners. But you’ll see some other, unexpected stories, too.

At the same time, though, these unexpected stories tend to be filled with stereotypical characters. With just a few exceptions, the white men are crazed and blood-thirsty, the white women are mean and jealous, and the slaves are kind and honest and trustworthy. Of course, that’s not to say that slave owners were good people or that slaves were somehow deserving of their treatment—only that the characters could have been developed with more depth.

Fortunately, even some of the most stereotypical characters are given new life through memorable performances. Ejiofor has already gotten plenty of award season buzz for his role as Solomon—and it’s definitely well deserved. He gives a powerful performance as the strong, resolute captive who does everything he can to survive, all the while holding on to the hope that he’ll one day get to see his family again. But his isn’t the only stand-out performance. While most of the bigger-name stars (like Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt) tend to have little more than cameo roles, newcomers like Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a slave named Patsey, manage to steal the spotlight and give the film its heart.

12 Years a Slave isn’t a fun film to watch. It’s long and drawn-out and rather light on action. But it’s also moving and memorable. It’s absolutely devastating yet hauntingly beautiful—a gripping exploration of a dark time in our nation’s history.


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