Mini-Review: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (2013) – True Story, Bro!

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and children. He works as a carpenter and loves to play the violin in his free time. One day two men offer him an opportunity to make easy money working with them for a circus. Solomon isn’t sure about it, but the money is good and his wife seems have a taste for the finer things in life, so he accepts. Turns out that those men where kidnappers who sold him off as a slave. Such bad men. Many lash. Very exploit. Not wow. 

It’s difficult to say anything negative about a film like Steve McQueen 12 Years a Slave, but we’ll have to separate the great, true story the film is based on and the film as a standalone piece of art. While I enjoyed the film overall and it is a great technical achievement in filmmaking (costumes, cinematography, editing etc.) and a masterclass in acting, there were some things that could have been better or just different. One glaring nuisance was Hans Zimmer‘s blockbuster score. I love the German composer as much as the next guy, but he was completely misused here. His music is too much.

As a matter of fact the whole movie could use a little restraint. Look, we all know slavery was a bad thing, you don’t have to convince me, going all ‘Passion of the Christ’ won’t earn you more sympathy. Why not just tell your story as it is? Didn’t they think it was powerful enough? Or did they think the audience was too stupid to be moved by it? I’m not saying they should have taken a documentary approach or made a dry list of facts, but maybe a little more subtlety would have made this picture even more effective. Again, I really liked 12 Years a Slave, but I find it a bit overrated.

I know Chiwetel Ejiofor is getting a lot of love (and rightfully so, he’s fantastic and seems like a great guy), but I’d also like to single out Paul Dano (an underrated actor, who’s been turning in some consistently great work) and Michael Fassbender (in his third collaboration with director Steve McQueen, who has done three films in total thus far). The other cast members are great as well, but I can’t mention everyone here, this is a mini-review after all.

7 out of 10

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18 comments

  1. literaryvittles

    Huh it’s funny that you wanted more subtlety from the film. I thought the film dealt with the violence pretty well. And I know you were a fan of Django Unchained, and that was anything but subtle! Agree that Paul Dano did a marvelous job, as always. I did do a review of this as well – you might have noticed it already. Just thought I’d mention it in case you wanted to hear my thoughts on the violent/brutal scenes.

    • davideperretta

      I think I didn’t explain myself that well. I meant more subtlety in terms of “emotion”. The violence was necessary and well executed, I completely agree. Even though not showing or implying violence can be just as effective (if not more) when done right. I just thought the film was a bit manipulative at times with the score and by making his main character almost too perfect.
      I have now read your review (I usually don’t read reviews before I’ve seen a film) thank you for that and well done!
      I wouldn’t compare ‘Slave’ to ‘Django’, because the directors are trying to do completely different things. One film is completely serious and the other one is all about having fun and the slavery aspect serves more as a context to the story.
      Glad we can agree on Paul Dano, what did you think of Michael Fassbender?

      • literaryvittles

        Fassbender was excellent! Really, though. I didn’t bring him up because I’ve only seen him in “Inglorious Basterds” apart from this movie, so I feel like I don’t have a super good sense of him as an actor yet. BUT he did so well with his character that I gleaned more about him, and his plantation, and his relationship with Patsy, than what was written in the script. And that rarely happens.
        I agree it’s a bit misleading to compare “12 Years” and “Django,” but the context sort of led me to it. Tarantino kind of abused slavery as a setting—he just did the same revenge plot that he always does. I’m not necessarily complaining about that, as I thought “Inglorious Basterds” was quite therapeutic in a way. And so perhaps “Django” is as well, since they are both revisionist versions of history.
        As far as “12 Years” being manipulative – absolutely. It’s a classic example of a story with a “perfect victim” – someone who is utterly blameless and who the audience can back 100%. I wonder if the title character would have been half as compelling for contemporary audiences if it had been 1) a female slave; 2) someone born into slavery, instead of kidnapped as a free man; or 3), uneducated and illiterate, and unable to convey his/her emotions so skillfully?
        As for the score, I will defer to you on that completely – it’s kind of odd, but I almost never notice the music in films. Not exactly sure why.

      • davideperretta

        Interesting, well it looks like we kind of agree after all 🙂
        I actually think a score is perfect when you DON’T notice it (or only on repeat viewings), because it should accompany the image not overpower it.
        You bring up some good points there. I also wondered about that (what about the other slaves? what’s their story?), but I was already being too cynical, so I didn’t bring it up.
        I also wonder how much “white guilt” plays a part when films like this get all the awards attention. And then oh, sure let’s throw in a good white man (Brad Pitt), so we can all feel good about ourselves. Like, no. Slavery was and is horrible, because it’s the sad truth that it still exists today. But of course this is a period piece, nobody would want to see a film about where their $2 t-shirts come from..

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