365 Movies By Day Reviews of Movies I Watch that I Feel Like Writing About


12 Years A Slave (2013)

The common moviegoer of America will soon be introduced to one of the next big names in feature film directing when the Academy Award nominations come out in a few weeks. Steve McQueen will undoubtedly earn a Best Director nomination for 12 Years A Slave, a movie that some say is the greatest movie about slavery ever told. While those who have seen the movie have talked a lot about the acting (and rightfully so), this movie, like any great movie, needs a captain to steer the ship and bring the story together. McQueen does just that. In a few weeks, the common moviegoer will be asking what else has McQueen directed. Well, this is just his third feature film. He has 23 "Shorts" that he is credited with directing, but only two feature-length films. But these two other films weren't just any movies. Much like Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight, Memento) everything that McQueen has touched in his young career has had purpose. He doesn't have any "throw away" movies. The movies he has tackled thus far in his full-length directorial career have been on slavery, sex addiction (Shame), and the true story of an Irish Republican Army activist who, in 1981, protested the way he and fellow inmates were being treated by British guards by embarking on, perhaps, the most internationally recognized hunger strike since Ghandi (Hunger). While both Shame and Hunger earned critical acclaim, they weren't seen by many people. I personally found Shame to be an absolutely brilliant movie. McQueen not just touched, but his ear to the burner in how he tackled the taboo topic of sex addiction. I think as a result, I expected much more when I saw Hunger after this. While I appreciated many aspects of Hunger, I found it to be rather dull. So now with 12 Years A Slave, McQueen has three movies that I admire and two that I think are brilliant.

So who exactly is this Chiwetel Ejiofor? Was he handpicked by McQueen out of hundreds of established actors who were vying for the role much like Matthew McConaughey was in Joel Schumacher's A Time To Kill? The answer to that question is not really. He's been around for awhile. He actually had four Golden Globe nominations before being nominated for this movie. Three of these were for performances in television mini-series, but he is far from just an actor on the small screen. He has been in movies such as Salt, Children of Men, American Gangster, Inside Man, and Love Actually. But when people hear the name Chiwetel Ejiofor from now until eternity, the images from 12 Years A Slave will immediately be what pops into their heads. Will Ejiofor win the Academy Award for Best Actor? I will say yes. As a whole, 2013 has been a down year for both movies and for stellar lead performances. Had 12 Years A Slave been released in 2012, I don't think Ejiofor would have had a real chance to beat Daniel Day-Lewis for his performance in Lincoln. I've read various blogs and have seen a consensus of lead actors who will likely be nominated as Best Actor. This list includes Ejiofor, Tom Hanks (Captain Phillips), Robert Redford (All Is Lost), McConaughey (Dallas Buyer's Club), Bruce Dern (Nebraska), Joaquin Phoenix (Her) and a couple of other long shots. I've seen Captain Phillips, All Is Lost, and Dallas Buyer's Club so far and, while the performances were good, they were not great and certainly not better than Ejiofor's. Dern seems like he will be the fifth person to lock up the slot, but I think he's one of those guys, late in his career, where a nomination would be just as good as a win. The Academy does seem to love Phoenix though and I am intrigued by this movie. The trailers that show Phoenix looking so joyous are a stark contrast to his performances as of late. He could easily get a nod and be a real dark horse for the win, but this is Ejiofor's award to lose.

Okay, so I've discussed the amazing director and the fantastic lead performance. I'll talk about the fabulous Michael Fassbender (who just happens to be the lead actor in McQueen's other two feature length films) in a moment, but let's get back to to the plot for a moment. The year is 1841 and an African American named Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor) is a free man living in New York. He is a happily married man with two young children. He is a stellar violinist. When his family goes away for a couple of weeks, Northrup is approached by two men who work in a traveling circus and promise him a hefty payday if he will go down to Washington DC with them and perform the violin with them at a few shows. He is promised an expense paid return to New York at the end of his service. It almost seems too good to be true. Unfortunately it is. Solomon is stripped of everything, his name has been changed to Platt, and the story is that he is a runaway slave from Georgia. He eventually is sold into slavery.

Solomon (Platt) basically is a slave on two plantations over the course of the 12 years. He is a slave for a tender man named Ford (we don't really know how long for...and in this lies one of the problems of the movie...just how long is each segment? I honestly never fully knew if he was on Ford's slave for a few months or a few years). He also works for a merciless slave named Epps (Michael Fassbender - Shame , The Counselor). Fassbender WILL earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor for this film. I have yet to really examine the other contenders, but it is my hope that he will win. He is as villainous as any character you will meet on film this year. He is a ruthless, remorseless man who believes he is entitled to everything while everyone else is entitled to nothing. Epps really has no redeemable qualities at all. Fassbender shows his range as an incredible actor. As a moviegoer, you are scared of him. He is unpredictable and cruel just for the sake of being cruel. You forget you are watching a movie and you are absolutely terrified of what he might to next.  You know it is not good for anybody near him when Epps is on screen, especially when he has been drinking. You have a hero in Solomon and a villain in Epps and you won't find more of a good verses evil situation in any movie you will encounter this year.

This is a very sad movie. The idea that people could buy other people as slaves and treat them as property is a disgusting concept just to imagine. To see it play out on the screen in such a visual manner will be uncomfortable, at best, for most and unwatchable for many. To see pieces of flesh fly into the air as a woman is being lashed was unbearable. I squirmed in my seat, trying to hold back the tears, unable to believe that this was an accepted practice for many 150+ years ago. It is disgusting to believe that this was something that we did in many parts of this great country and thought nothing more of it. Slavery was the only issue that ever divided our country into a flat out war against each other. Thank goodness there were enough people to realize that slavery needed to be abolished and believed in it enough to fight their neighbor over it if their neighbor disagreed.

I do think that there are things that we, as Americans, do now or have done in the past 10-25 years that people 150+ years from now will look back at some of the issues of today and be disbelieved with how we handled them. I personally think there are some issues in our society that we could do a much better job on and, to a great degree, have done better on some. But none of these issues compare to how certain people treated non-freed Black Americans back in the early to mid 1800's and it would be inappropriate to address the issues of today here. But I did want to bring it up to just to say that we are all still very far from being close to perfect on many, many divisive issues.

I think this is a movie everyone should try to see and preferably in the theater, although the theater experience probably isn't that much better if you have a nice big flat screen in your home.

***Read this part only after you've seen the movie. If you want to just see my overall score on it, the score is a 92.5%***

Plot 10/10
Character Development 8/10 (while the acting was superb, I was completely lost by the time frame...maybe I wasn't looking close enough but Ejiofor looked the same physically and age wise at the start of the film as he did the end...and 12 hard years, I think, would have a drastic impact on a person's appearance...there were developments in his character that I was equally underwhelmed by...I put much more of the blame on McQueen than I do Ejiofor though.
Character Chemistry 10/10 (the characters who you are supposed to love, you love...the characters who you are supposed to hate, you hate)
Acting 10/10 (what a cast...though I'm wondering if producer Brad Pitt realized early that this movie had potential for Best Picture and decided he needed to put himself in the movie...Pitt is awesome, but he had only two scenes and when he finally did make an appearance, you sort of knew everything might be okay for Solomon. If it was a lesser known actor, you might have had to wait a little longer for this to play out)
Screenplay 8.5/10
Directing  8.5/10 (McQueen did a great job with a very difficult task of compressing 12 years into two hours...yet I was lost at times about how long he had been at which plantation and what not. I thought the flashbacks were brilliant. However, I thought the movie got a little slow in the middle)
Cinematography 10/10
Sound 9/10
Hook and Reel 9/10
Universal Relevance 9.5/10 (I can't remember where I read this. I won't take credit for it, but it resonated with me...The critic basically said that this movie is essential to watch once and nearly impossible to watch more than once)

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  1. Great review. The “lost in time” aspect didn’t really bother me; I thought it was probably an accurate mirror what Solomon must have felt (ie one day blends into the next, who knows how long he’d been gone, and how often did he really get a look at a calendar to keep track). Further, while his first slavemaster was ostensibly “kind”, he was still part and parcel of the culture, unwilling to stand up to do anything against slavery, and more to the point, still maintained slaves against their will himself whether their condition was nominally better or not. It was in his yard that Solomon hangs to death. Anyway, I hope it will do well in the oscars; I fear it isn’t as high profile as some of the other candidates but that may change as awards season approaches.

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