McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ a barren, sobering portrait

McQueen’s ‘12 Years a Slave’ a barren, sobering portrait

By Karsten Burgstahler


The last year has produced several romanticized ideas of the south in the 1800s/1900s. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” featured a freedman taking bloody revenge on the man who owned his wife. “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” followed an African-American man who had a prime position in the halls of power and often had the ear of the president.

Although “Django” was bloody and showed the darkness of slavery, nothing is more wrenching and direct than Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” (Rated R; 134 Min.). McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley work with a true story stripped bare of the heroes and the triumphant successes that came after the war. There is no hope here. There is no easy way out. Even the victories are only small ones.


“Years” is based on the memoir, written in 1853 by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejifor), a free man who lives in the North with his family, but is drugged and kidnapped by several slave traders. His first owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is not a violent man, but does employ the ghoulish John Tibeats (Paul Dano) to watch over the slaves. At first, Northup fights back against his captors, turning the whip on Tibeats. But as the years go by and he is traded to the brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), his will and his spirit begin to break.

McQueen’s film takes a different approach to slavery in that the audience is given an outsider to identify with. Northup is experiencing the horrors of slavery at the same time as moviegoers. The audience is only privy to what Northup knows and never gets to go behind closed doors. McQueen does not spare viewers from the bloodshed. He allows whippings to go on for what feels like an eternity and does not pull the camera away.

The violence becomes more graphic as the movie rolls along, and when Northup finally gets a respite from the terror and is saved, it is still only one man who has been taken from these horrors. The camera lingers on the slaves still stuck in servitude. None of the plantation owners get what is coming to them. None of them are forced to own up to what they have done.

“Years” is a hard movie to digest, one that exists only to drive a point home: there is nothing romantic about the Civil War or the period that came before it. McQueen is not concerned with a plot — he rests everything on Ejifor’s shoulders. For his part, Ejifor does an excellent job with the material, considering he is our guide into this world. We can see the exhaustion in his eyes as he becomes more and more lost in the life he has been forced into.

Fassbender also becomes consumed by the role of Epps and seems like a true lunatic. However, of the slave drivers, Dano gives the cruelest performance. Epps just appears to accept berating slaves as part of his purpose; if he derives pleasure from it, Fassbender hides it well. But as Tibeats, Dano goes out of his way to make the slaves’ lives miserable. He forces them to sing degrading songs and whips them mercilessly. His performance will make the moviegoers’ skin crawl.

Ejifor may be front and center, but film newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives a knockout performance as Patsey, a slave Epps takes an unhealthy liking to and, on occasion, rapes on screen. When Ejifor seems too burdened to muster emotion, Nyong’o still lets the tears flow. Watching her character’s treatment, in both the rape scene and a whipping scene, is perhaps the most heartbreaking element of the film.

Even though the cast is at the top of their game, McQueen’s stark approach to Northup’s tale does leave some to be desired. We are not allowed much insight into Solomon’s life beyond the fact that he is a successful family man and he is a good musician. It could be argued this adds to the cold nature of the film — all that matters is that he had a better life. But as painful as it is watching Northup lose hope, it would have been more crushing to have a vivid image of that family.


The slave owners and traders are also a curious issue. Yes, they all give monstrous performances. But they all seem like the stereotypical slave drivers featured on film before, only on steroids, and that is really because of the writing and dialogue, not because of the acting. “Twelve Years” is enough to make the audience gasp and cringe, but it faces an uphill battle in true emotional resonation. That is a problem with most slave narratives that make it to the screen — we were not around to experience it firsthand, so no amount of cruel violence on screen could truly expose us to the horrors of that era. I would have to imagine McQueen’s vision comes pretty damn close, however. It is that nihilistic.

These problems could all be viewed as important to the movie if flipped — that is why “12 Years” still earns 5 stars. McQueen has painted a picture of slavery that captures its pointlessness. The heartless slave owners and drivers are never given justification for their actions. They are just cruel because the law allows them to be. That’s the most chilling point “12 Years” makes; these owners did it because they could. It is a darkness that will stay with audiences long after they leave the theater.

Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected] 

or 536-3311 ext. 261.