I2 Years A Slave is more than a film. It’s a visual experience of a very real but obscure time in American history. Directed by Steve McQueen and adapted by John Ridley, the film narrates the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a 19th century free black man from New York who’s sold into slavery in 1841. While the film isn’t for those with weak stomachs, there’s nothing that’s too violent or too cruel about it. American slavery is a topic that doesn’t get its due on the Hollywood screen. McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, as aggressive and extreme as it may seem, is just a taste of what life was really like when bondage was allowed in America.

The Players

  • Director: Steve McQueen
  • Screenwriter: John Ridley
  • Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard
  • Cinematography by: Sean Bobbitt
  • Original Music by: Hans Zimmer

The Plot:

In the pre-Civil War U. S., Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty, personified by the ruthless slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the 12th year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) forever alters his life.

The Good:

  • Steve McQueen: Few films have tackled the brutality of American slavery the way 12 Years A Slave does. Hollywood just doesn’t go there, and that works to the film’s advantage. There are many realities at play, and McQueen manages each perspective wholly. He fearlessly shows us the intimate horror of one man’s extraordinary story. Solomon Northup had a life prior to being slave. He was a free man, with a family and a fantastic career. He was cultured and well-traveled. McQueen uses Northup’s story to give viewers a history lesson. American slavery was horrendous, and the director shows us that over and over again. He’s not doing it for shock value, but to remind us that it happened. McQueen creates captivating moments that convey the chilling violence that slaves endured for stupid reasons, or no reasons at all. In one scene, we see Northup hanging from a tree for hours, with a noose around his neck. Without holding back, McQueen allows us to watch him suffer for what seems like eternity. As uncomfortable as it is to watch, the result is powerful.
  • The Performances: Ejiofor is spectacular here. His performance is a journey in and of itself. His character begins as a sweet, inviting and trusting man. Even after it’s obvious that the men who sold him into slavery were con artists, he’s in complete denial. Ejiofor’s eyes are still filled with hope and innocence, almost like they’re saying, “No man would be this cruel.” But he soon learns a different reality, and like that his performance evolves. There are so many chilling moments in his portrayal. If he doesn’t win an Oscar, it would be an outrage. But Ejiofor is just one of many great actors in this film. Michael Fassbender reunites with McQueen for a third time and again delivers a significant performance. This man can do no wrong. Here, Fassbender’s character is the worst of the worst. He’s a crazy drunken slave owner who beats and rapes his “property.” Fassbender goes full-villain, and it’s both terrifying and entertaining. Brad Pitt, who served as one of the film’s producers, also appears in a small but key role. His conversations with both Epps and Northup are stirring, mainly because he’s there as an outsider, much like the viewer. Then there’s Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o, who is the film’s greatest discovery. It’s amazing to see this newcomer play the beautiful and ruthlessly abused Patsey, because she’s up against some big Hollywood players.
  • The Music: Like McQueen’s direction, Mr. Zimmer’s score is haunting, full of tension, and sort-of made for the horror genre, which is fitting in this case.

The So-So:

  • Small Complaints: Some will complain that 12 Years A Slave is torture porn because of the long violent scenes, but that’s totally absurd. This film is not trying to scandalized you. This isn’t fiction. This is just a tiny view into an actual time in history. Calling this film too violent or brutal is offensive to the memory of those who lived through slavery.


McQueen is a visual artist, and he’s proven that with his past two features Hunger and Shame, both of which also told personal stories. There’s a lot to admire about this film. The determined performances, Zimmer’s heedful score, and McQueen’s daring direction. As far as his filmography goes, 12 Years A Slave is by far his best. This is a movie that makes cinema matter.

The Rating: 9.5/10

12 Years A Slave hits theaters October 18.



Will you be seeing 12 Years a Slave this weekend?