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Twelve Years A Slave– Movie Review

Submitted by on November 2, 2013 – 2:59 pmNo Comment

In 12 Years A Slave, director Steve McQueen depicts the horrors of slavery, with an emphasis on horror. The film often feels like a slasher film as much as a historical epic: the audience never knows what act of debasement and cruelty lurks around the corner. Combined with Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s vulnerable performance and gorgeous cinematography, 12 Years is a wrenching but amazing film.

The movie tells the based-on-truth story of Solomon Northup (Ejiofor), a free black man in New York in the 1840′s. He is kidnapped and sold into slavery, where he experiences the full cruelty of the institution before being rescued twelve years later.

The dark tone begins almost immediately, but really hits home on the riverboat journey that brings the kidnapped Northup to New Orleans. The hold of the boat is barely illuminated, and is covered in rusty chains. Men are imprisoned in iron masks. It is the site of conspiratorial whispers, random killing, and rape. It is as terrifying as any onscreen torture dungeon.

When the camera later focuses on the churning river underneath the paddle wheel of the river boat, it transforms the neutral sight into one of turbulence and foreboding. The harsh, metallic soundtrack reminded me of Johnny Greenwood‘s score for There Will Be Blood; in fact, the two movies share much in the shadowy, demonic, and suspenseful way they portray dark pieces of American history.

The movie is filmed largely in shadow and darkness, which also adds to the suspense. One scene features Northup pulled out of bed by his slave master (a psychotically great Michael Fassbender) and interrogated by the light of a single lantern. It is what we don’t see that makes the scene so powerful.

All of this tonal risk taking actually makes the film even more impactful. Against this backdrop, Northrup’s struggle to survive is never idealized, and no judgement is passed on those who make different choices.

Did you see 12 Years A Slave? What did you think?

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