Movie Reviews & Interviews from Washington

’12 Years a Slave’ Review: Honest, Courageous & Wonderfully Acted

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” –Solomon Northup

Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is this year’s unforgettable instant classic.

Based on the book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave takes place in the 1800s and tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped and sent to work on a plantation in New Orleans.

12 Years a Slave may be one of the best films of the year, but its absolutely terrifying to watch and the most brutally honest depiction of slavery in the South as I have ever seen. This is not a film for the faint of heart, but it is a necessary film and one that everyone should see at least once.

If the Oscars were to happen tomorrow, Chiwetel Ejiofor would take home the gold for Best Actor. He is completely amazing in the film and there is one particular sequence where the cinematographer zooms the camera in his face and the actor’s eyes meet the camera. In that moment, the entire audience feels connected to Solomon and can understand what is behind those sad eyes. Even in the scenes where he doesn’t have much dialogue, Ejiofor wins us over with his compassionate and powerful performance.

If you thought Leonardo DiCaprio was evil in Django Unchained, he doesn’t even compare to Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps in this film. This is the third collaboration between Steve McQueen and Fassbender (2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame). The pair certainly does have a flair for the dramatic and violent, but Fassbender is worthy of an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the maniacal slave owner. Every single second he was on screen, I was just waiting for him to snap and lose his temper once again. He’s a brilliant actor and one of my personal favorites working today.


The cast of supporting actors include Alfre Woodard as the pretentious African-American plantation owner, Paul Giamatti as a slave bidder, Sarah Paulson as the wicked Mistress Epps, Benedict Cumberbatch as the understanding slave owner, Paul Dano as the power-hungry racist, Scoot McNairy as the thief who assisted in Solomon’s capture, Brad Pitt (who also produced the film) as the gentle construction worker and an award-worthy performance by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey, the woman torn up by the abusive Edwin Epps.

Hans Zimmer’s beautiful and highly emotional score is a deservedly memorable part of the film. I’ve listened to the score over and over again and as I’m hearing it, I don’t think Zimmer could have created a more perfect soundtrack for the film. Between Man of Steel, Rush and now 12 Years a Slave, Zimmer continues to be one of the greatest film composers today.

12 Years a Slave is certain to be up for several awards come Oscar season and at this point it may even take home the Best Picture (although I’d rather see Gravity win). Steve McQueen’s film is honest, courageous and meticulously paced in a way that blends with Ejiofor’s masterful character arc.

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