Steve McQueen’s film 12 Years a Slave is an absolute masterpiece. Through this vision, he has given the American people a film about slavery that they deserve. No stone is left unturned. It is at times brutal to watch and yet through the narrative comes a terrific story of struggle, survival, and perseverance. 12 Years a Slave, with award worthy performances all around, is the best film of the year!

​It is the story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York in 1841. He lives with his wife and two children, spends his earnings on the finer things for his wife, and plays a mean violin. He is respected among his community. When he is introduced to two traveling salesmen he is told about the prospects of possibly playing the violin for a traveling circus band. The two men have some other dealings in mind and trick Solomon. He becomes very sick, is put to bed, and wakes up the next morning in shackles. He has been kidnapped and sold into slavery.

Actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to be the front-runner for Best Actor at this years Academy Awards. Director McQueen never allows us to look away from the 36 year old actors beautiful face. That is what his performance is; it is beautiful. From the beginning of the film we are along for the journey of survival. Solomon is subjected to the awful treatment from others during his enslavement and we see the torture. McQueen never sugar coats it. He displays all that was wrong and human in slavery.

When Solomon makes his way to the antebellum south, he is beginning to be physically and psychologically broken. He starts in Louisiana owned by Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) where he keeps his education a secret. He must deal with an abusive farmhand named Tibeats (Paul Dano). When Solomon raises his hand back at Tibeats, he is tortured. McQueen uses this moment to reveal what he has perfected, the long shot. It is a heavy scene as Solomon is hung from a tree, where he is able to tippy toe enough on the ground to keep from fatal strangulation. As he hangs in pain, we see the other slaves continuing to go on with their day, as Solomon’s life hangs on his toes.   

This is Steve McQueen’s third feature length film. The director has already achieved extraordinary cinematic measures in his previous films, Hunger (2008), and his in depth study of one mans sex addiction in Shame (2011). The London, England native has become one of the best directors in the world faster than any I have seen. He is an actual painter, and his artistic eye is evident with his camera work in every sense. He does not neglect on terse dialogue or visual brutality. It is all possible, through the abundance of award worthy performances.

After Solomon leaves Master Ford he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Fassbender does not pull any punches. He is a phenomenal actor, portraying a difficult and ugly role. The dynamic of Epps's relationship with Solomon is twisted. He is a man who hides behind the literal words of the gospel to explain reasoning behind his mistreatment. He wakes his slaves up in the middle of the night to entertain him and he is abusive to a woman who he at times uses as his sex slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She gives an award worthy performance in her first feature length film. As Solomon is subjected to Epps’ punishment, McQueen is again never afraid to show us the inhumanity of slavery in the 1800’s.

We are only one year removed from films such as Lincoln and Django Unchained. This is a movie about slavery that can be praised for its honesty. Unlike Django, this film does not try to find humor or a western out of a history that America cannot be proud of, and a relevant issue around the world today. This film is an inspiring tale about survival against all odds. As you follow Solomon Northrup, you only want for this man to one day return to his family, and live his life as a free man.

12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece. There will be award nominations for Ejiofor, Fassbender, and the newcomer Nyong’o. Steve McQueen’s direction of the story of Solomon Northrup is done the way it was intended to. It was meant to strip America of its mask and display the awful things that happened in this country. What we learn is a story about human survival. People need to see this film!


Written by: Leo Brady 

12 Years a Slave