Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)


By Sean Gardner

Powerful movies make powerful stories.

12 Years a Slave is film making at its finest. It is the story of a free black man living in pre Civil War New York. He is hoodwinked into trusting people he shouldn’t, kidnapped and sold into slavery. There is no way he himself can prove he is a free man, and he has no way of contacting other people who can. So he has no other choice than to put his head down and take it; literally and figuratively.

A film has not had such power on the conscience of man since Schindler’s List. This film needs to be seen and seen by everyone. It speaks to the unalienable, God given right of freedom and the natural desire of every human to be free. Similar to Schindler’s List, it is brutal, because it has to be. It is disturbing, because it has to be. It is thought provoking and painfully emotional, because it has to be. Were it not so, would be a grave injustice to the men and women that had to endure slavery and its inhumane practices.

Not enough can be said to effectively describe how well made this movie is. As I was watching, I imagined how difficult it must have been for the actors to portray their respective characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor is nearly perfect as the kidnapped slave. His performance is so convincing that at times I forgot he was acting. The close ups on Ejiofor wordlessly reveal the despair, hopelessness, and pain experienced by the character. Michael Fassbender gives an equally impressive, career defining performance as the despicable plantation owner.

The most impressive accomplishment of this film however is its ability to stay politically neutral. It does not deify the North as a whole or villainize the South as a whole. It incriminates or praises specific people based on their beliefs and actions. It simply tells the story of a man unjustly (even for the times) sold into slavery, and how he is influenced by the people he meets.

12 Years a Slave reminded me of the power of movies. How can something as simple as moving pictures paired with spoken words be so profoundly emotional and powerfully influential? I’m thoroughly convinced that film making is the most potent art form, and 12 Years a Slave is without a doubt the most potent film in recent memory.

Just as a word of warning, this film is not for the faint if heart. Times of slavery were not pretty times in world history, and this film does not paint a pretty picture. Much like Schindler’s List, you have to know what you’re getting yourself into, and you must be emotionally prepared.

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