Movie Review: “12 Years a Slave” – Haunting, Heartbreaking, Heavenly

Written by Rachel Ganzewinkel November 09, 2013


“12 Years a Slave” is one of those movies that makes you remember why you love movies. When the perfect story intertwines with impeccable direction there emerges a sort of visual mastery that lends another dimension to a story you can’t gleam from a page. Director Steve McQueen took on a slave narrative that could’ve ended up coming across as over romanticized and cliche, but instead, he’s created a hauntingly beautiful narrative that tells the story of a free black man, Solomon Northup (the impeccable Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was tricked and sold into the slave trade that was still thriving in mid-19th century America.

“I Don’t Want to Survive, I Want to Live”

Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Alfre Woodward round out one of the most packed casts in any movie as of late. There is not one drop of talent that isn’t perfect for the role they were given. Michael Fassbender as depraved slave owner Edwin Epps is heart-stopping-ly stupendous in a role that is unapologetic about the pride Epps feels as a man known to whip disobedient slaves into complete obedience.

The performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, is simply outstanding. He is able to portray Northup’s strong perseverance through the world’s most unjust fate while showing, through his incredibly expressive eyes, the terror and heartache at having been taken from his family, and from his life as a free man.


Every Frame as Photograph

Steve McQueen is a director for the ages. He is seriously one of the most underrated directors of our time. His eye is beholden to majesty only the most masterful artists are akin to. Every single frame juxtaposes some form of beauty and tragedy that maintain the complex tone of the film. There are such pretty things- like a full field of plump cotton plants, a glorious southern mansion, beautiful dresses and faces – that fill the screen. But while you see these stunning aesthetics in front of you, an unimaginable horror takes over and crowds these scenes with such unapologetic violence and hate that your heart has no choice but to break at the images put forth.

McQueen also made great use of the long take in “12 Years a Slave”. He refuses to cut away from the cruelty that so many innocent people had to endure. Every time a slave was beaten, whipped, raped, or hanged, there was no cut-away. There is no safety, no comfort for the audience to turn to so as not to be subjected to the horrors of history. Every close-up of Northup as he tries to hold himself together, makes you, in the audience, fall apart.


The Lone Canadian

Brad Pitt plays Bass, a Canadian working in the American South and is a very integral part of Northup’s story. As a Canadian, he doesn’t believe in the slave trade, yet continues to work alongside slaves, only bringing to light their poor health when he offers water, yet doesn’t do much to help otherwise. As a man who disagrees with slavery so much, why continue to take work in a country that treats fellow human beings with such unbelievable cruelty? If it’s nothing other than money, you also have to consider, isn’t that basically what the slave trade was about? Making fortunes and using free labor to keep them wealthy?┬áHis character is surprisingly complex for having such a short period of time onscreen.

The Power of a Perfect Project

The story of Solomon Northup is an important and unforgettable story that deserved (and received) the best story tellers to bring his experience to life. The cast, director, the screenwriter John Ridley, and composer Hans Zimmer worked in perfect combination. The haunting score by Zimmer enhances every powerful emotion that is already apparent onscreen. It also emphasizes the important role music plays throughout the story. Northup is able to express himself through his fiddle playing – to a point. The symbol of the fiddle is constant through the movie to showcase how it is integral to Northup’s experience and perseverance.


The story itself, taken from Northup’s own book of his experience, “Twelve Years a Slave”, is an authentic and genuine retelling of an often glossed over part of American history. These slaves were but beasts to white slave owners during this time period. It is such a disgusting concept, to talk about it makes many people visibly uncomfortable. But it must be talked about. It would be insulting to all of those people who endured the worst of humanity if the truth was not told as harshly and as powerfully as it is here.


I really don’t like over-hyping movies, but there is really nothing I can find in “12 Years a Slave” that isn’t simply perfect. All of the elements combined made for an explosive and powerful telling of an important story from an often glossed-over part of history. The juxtaposed images of beauty and tragedy from stunning direction align with the heartbreaking and beautiful score that works perfectly with some of the best performances from some of the most talented actors working today. “12 Years a Slave” is haunting, incredible, powerful, outstanding, and simply unforgettable. This is going to be a tough one to beat come Oscar season.

My Rating: 9.5/10


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About Rachel Ganzewinkel

Rachel loves movies and writing and has found the perfect amalgamation in writing movie reviews for We Eat Films. In between movie watching and the real-life world of work, she enjoys tea, reading, writing, and wearing over-size sweaters (while occassionally doing some of these simultaneously).

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