12 Years a Slave Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt Fox Searchlight Pictures
Rated R | 134 Minutes
Release Date: November 1, 2013
Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), 12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiographical memoir by Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery.
Written by John Ridley (U Turn), 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men) as Northup, a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York. Northup is a respected member of the community there, earning a living as a masterful violin player.
He is kidnapped by a pair of men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam), drugged, and sold into bondage. In chains, Northup (now called “Platt”) is transported to Washington D.C. where he is purchased by slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).
After an altercation with one of Ford’s hired hands (Paul Dano), Platt is sold to the abusive, bible-beating slave driver Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a mentally unstable cotton plantation master with a palpable hatred for blacks who also has a perverse obsession with a young slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
Most of the film is spent on Epps’ plantation where Platt struggles to appease his cruel, hypocritical master and his equally hateful wife (Sarah Paulson). During his time there, he meets a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) who gives him a renewed sense of hope that he will someday be free again.
Beautifully written, brilliantly acted, and masterfully crafted, 12 Years a Slave is the frontrunner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. A powerful, devastating piece of cinema, McQueen’s film is both heartbreaking and poignant. Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in a remarkable performance worthy of Best Actor while Fassbender reminds us of just how nasty and despicable he can be.
Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (Hunger, Shame, The Place Beyond the Pines) captures the brutality and despair of the Deep South through flawlessly composed images of cotton fields and slave quarters with dirt floors. Everything is covered with dirt and dust – blood and sweat – and McQueen is in complete control of every frame, orchestrating a roller-coaster of emotions where our hearts are constantly fluctuating between sinking and swelling.
With only three feature films under his belt, Steve McQueen has become one of the finest filmmakers out there. Hunger, Shame, and now 12 Years a Slave represent one of the most impressive, promising starts to a film career since the early days of Spielberg, Scott, and Scorsese.
This is brilliant, essential, unforgettable cinema. McQueen’s unflinching look at American slavery should be seen with an audience – in a theater – where you can sit with others in stunned silence, so quiet you can hear the tears.