With “Twelve Years a Slave”, London-born director Steve McQueen has created a moving, frightening and very realistic Dixieland slave epic based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, a free black musician from New York who was kidnapped on a tour in Washington D.C. and sold as a slave to a southern land and slave owner in the mid-1800s.
It is one of very few big movies addressing America’s darkest chapter in history that still needs to be reflected upon and dealt with. Therefore, it’s even more telling that it was a British director who – already known for his two other socially critical movies “Hunger” (2008) and “Shame” (2011) – re-invokes the spirits of a colonial and antebellum past with a film that is, to say the least, cruel and bloody in its nature and shocking in its bluntness. Steve McQueen understands perfectly how to combine the brutality of action with the poetry of Louisiana’s seemingly quiet scenery. Hans Zimmer’s enchanting music, composed for “12 Years a Slave”, certainly contributes to the capturing and enthralling storyline that turns into a mixture of a family melodrama and violent thriller.
The protagonist, Chiwetel Ejofor (already known from movies like “Amistad” and “2012”) impresses the audience with his absolutely credible and realistic performance as a man who is torn from his family and deprived of every form of respect and honor. From one day to another, by an unfortunate coincidence, Solomon lands in the hands of slave traders who sell him to the southern slave country where he suffers the tortures and humiliation experienced by millions of African Americans in the United States. On a cotton plantation, Solomon gains the sympathy of Mister Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), which evokes jealousy in the overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who considers slaves inferior beasts who should only work and not work with their masters. One of the most shocking scenes in the movie is the punishment Tibeats gives to Solomon for beating him up in a fight: He ties him to a tree, a sling around his neck, where he keeps dangling, tiptoeing in the mud, trying not to lift his feet in the air to die on the rope. It is probably one of the director’s longest ellipses in the movies, and way more spine-crawling than the whipping Patsey (Lupita Nyongo) receives from her master for getting a piece of soap.
Solomon makes two unsuccessful attempts to escape the horrors on the Louisiana farm, once trying to run away, once asking a white cotton-picker to help him post a letter in town. But the cotton-picker betrays him and informs the slave owner. Finally, he manages to tell Mister Bass (Brad Pitt) his true story. Bass is a Canadian who is against slavery and helps Solomon by informing a friend in New York, who rescues the man after twelve years in slavery. Expectably, the story has a happy and very touching ending, with Solomon being reunited with his family.
“Twelve Years a Slave” is a film that will certainly make your hackles rise, but, apart from a very straight storyline, it also reflects excellent directing and acting skills which are so important to make this highly sensitive chapter in American history an international success.
© Review by Stephan Haderer
2013: Premier at the Toronto International Film Festival
2014: Winner of the Golden Globe as “Best Film Drama”
Winner of 3 Oscars
Jan 16, 2014: Premier in Germany
Jan 17, 2014: Premier in Austria