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Thursday 16 January 2014

12 Years A Slave, Film (2013), directed by Steve McQueen 9* out of 10

March 1843 Saratoga New York. Salomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), is black, a free man, married with a young family, living a bourgeois existence as a musician and farmer. But when he accepts in good faith, a contract to play the violin at circus performances in Washington DC he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the Southern states. Suddenly, he enters a world, where in everyday life white people treat black people, as more or less valuable means of production without any rights. Salomon does not know how long it will be before he can regain his status as a free man, if ever, but he is determined to return to his wife and children. So he deploys his considerable skills and intelligence to get to understand the society he finds himself in. He resolves to make himself useful to his masters in order to achieve a position from which he has the chance to escape the cruel fate of being a slave in the American South of the mid 19th century.

Based on Salomon Northup’s biographical account originally published in 1853 (and dedicated to Harriet Beecher-Stowe the author of the fictional Uncle Tom’s Cabin), John Ridley (screenplay) and the black British artist Steve McQueen (director) tell an exciting story which is a powerful indictment of the system of slavery.  They are supported by an excellent cast including Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giammati, Michael Fassbender) and less known but no less excellent actors notably Chiwetel Ejiofor in the main role and Lupita Nyong’o as the slave girl Patsey. The photography showing the landscape and architecture of the American South is beautiful. The camera often stays on a scene for a long time with only the natural sound as a soundtrack that is as rich as any musical score. 

12 Years a Slave grabs today's film-going audience, as everyone can identify with Salomon Northrup, a free man who is brutally plucked from a comfortable happy working and family life into the existence of a slave. More painfully and reluctantly we can, if we are honest, also identify with potentially good men trying to be “humane slave owners”, whom the system of slavery, of which they are part, has pushed into accepting and defending what, when looked at from the outside, they would know to be indefensible. Most complex and tragic is the role of the attractive woman slave. Separated from her children, she may obtain major privileges by becoming the master’s official “second wife”.  But that in turn brings mortal danger from the master’s first wife, let alone being subject to the master’s own whims and brutality. And in this film brutality is appropriately shown when it is part of the story. Some viewers may find this hard to cope with, but the accusation that director Steve McQueen is presenting “torture porn” is unjustified and disingenuous. Finally, 12 Years A Slave can be seen as an uplifting film as the US has come a long way in emancipating former slaves and their descendants. Yet slavery and slave-like working conditions still exist in many countries around the world. And we are all prone to assert ourselves by thinking that others are less than ourselves. Salomon Northrop’s story remains a powerful wake-up call to our better nature.   

Among the mainstream English language films of 2013, 12 Years A Slave is one of two films that stand out as high quality works of lasting value, (the other being Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine).


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. 12 Years a Slave is nothing! In my case it's more like 50 Years a Slave (and counting). Too long for a movie, I guess.