Northampton Press

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Movie Review: '12 Years A Slave' a lesson for us all

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 by PAUL WILLISTEIN in Focus

"12 Years A Slave" is a profound film depicting an era of unspeakable horror in the history of the United States, as well as a marker in the evolution of the depiction of slavery and race in American cinema.

From the minstrelsy of silent films and early talkies ("The Jazz Singer," 1927) to cinema classics ("Gone With the Wind," 1939) to the film adaptation of the Mark Twain novel ("The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," 1939, 1960) to Alex Haley's epic mini-series ("Roots," 1977 ) to an important work by the greatest living American director Steven Spielberg ("Amistad," 1997) to that of America's greatest living outré director Quentin Tarrantino ("Django Unchained," 2012), movies provide a dialogue about race that spills over into mainstream media commentary, including movie reviews such as this one, and newspaper opinion pages, television and radio talk shows and internet blogs and posts.

As with this year's "Lee Daniels' The Butler," the point of view of "12 Years A Slave" is the work of a director of color, Great Britain's Steve McQueen ("Shame," 2011; "Hunger," 2008), who brings an unblinking perspective and a certain calm detachment to what used to be called "the Negro problem." With "12 Years A Slave" we see it's not only a particularly American problem, but certainly, as represented in the pre-Civil War South, a peculiarly American problem.

The legacy of racial hatred continued decades years after the slaves were freed in the so-called "Jim Crow South," until passage of the Civil Rights Voting Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act 1965, and, it could be argued, continues to this day.

"12 Years A Slave" is paced by Chiwetel Ejiofor ("Amistad," "Dirty Pretty Things," "Children of Men," "Talk to Me") whose thoughtful (his large eyes reflecting his inner disbelief), interior-driven (seen in his expressive, intense, furrowed face) and remarkable performance (his strong, well-dressed shoulders visibly slump as his fortunes sink) as Solomon Northup, on whose memoir, "12 Years A Slave" (circa 1854 with 30,000 copies sold), the film is based. Chiwetel Ejiofor (pronounced Chew-eh-tell Edge-ee-oh-for) is a certain Oscar actor nominee.

"12 Years A Slave," which has depictions of wince-inducing violence, has an eloquence in dialogue ("My sentimentality extends the length of a coin," says a slave trader, and this from Northup: "How can you fall into such despair?") and atmospheric landscapes: the bittersweet beauty in scenes of white, fluffy cotton fields, breathtaking fiery sunsets and that mysterious Spanish moss hanging from massive trees.

Look for Oscar nominations for: picture, director (Great Britain's Steve McQueen, "Shame," 2011; "Hunger," 2008), adapted screenplay (McQueen, John Ridley, story, "Three Kings"; TV's "Barbershop"), score (Hans Zimmer's uncharacteristically spare, effective score of percussion and low strings), cinematography (director of photography Sean Bobbitt, "The Place Beyond The Pines") and several supporting actor and actress nominations.

Northup was a free black man, married with two children, living in Saratoga, N.Y. Northup, a vibrant speaker, friendly gentleman and an accomplished violinist was asked to join a traveling circus-type show when he was kidnapped, apparently in Washington, D.C. Whether the show's producers-performers were complicit is unclear.

What unfolds is told partly with skillful flashbacks by director McQueen: Northup is placed on a slave ship and taken to New Orleans where he's sold at a slave auction presided over by a slave trader ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti at his nastiest) to a seemingly sympathetic plantation master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch in a delicately nuanced performance) where he gets on the wrong side of the slave overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano again weirdly wicked), who lives up to his ironic slave-beating name.

Northup is resold to another plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, who should garner an Oscar supporting actor nomination), whose cruel obsession with a young slave girl, Patsey (Lupita Nyong, deserving an Oscar actress nomination in her film debut).

In smaller supporting roles are Alfre Woodard as Mistress Shaw, and Brad Pitt, a producer of the film, as Bass, a Canadian abolitionist.

"12 Years A Slave" is a remarkable film that should be seen by students of history, young and old.

"12 Years A Slave," MPAA rated R (Restricted. Children Under 17 Require Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian.) for violence-cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality; Genre: Biography, Drama, History; Run-time: 2 hrs., 14 min.; Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures and Regency Enterprises.

Credit Readers Anonymous: "12 Years A Slave" was filmed on location in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana.

Box Office, Nov. 8: It was hammer-time with "Thor: The Dark World" slamming down a blockbuster $86.1 million to open at No.1, with "Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa" continuing at No. 2, $11.3 million, $78.7 million, three weeks, "Free Birds" flying up a notch to No. 3, $11.1 million, $30.1 million, two weeks, and "Last Vegas" dropping a notch to No. 4, $11.1 million, $33.5 million, two weeks, and knocking "Ender's Game" from No. 1 to No. 5, $10.2 million, $44 million, two weeks;

6. "Gravity," $8.4 million, $231.1 million, six weeks; 7. "12 Years A Slave," $6.6 million, $17.3 million, four weeks; 8. "Captain Phillips," $5.8 million, $90.9 million, five weeks; 9. "About Time," $5.1 million, $6.6 million, two weeks; 10. "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2," $2.8 million, $109.9 million, seven weeks

Unreel, Nov. 15:

"The Best Man Holiday," R: After 15 years, college friends reunite during the Christmas holiday season. Terrence Howard, Regina Hall, Taye Diggs, Melissa De Sousa, Morris Chestnut, Nia Long and Monica Calhoun star in the comedy.

"Nebraska," R: A father drives from Montana to Nebraska with his estranged son to claim a $1-million marketing prize. Alexander Payne directs Bruce Dern and Will Forte in the drama, released in black and white.

Read Paul Willistein's movie reviews at the Lehigh Valley Press web site,; the Times-News web site,; and hear them on "Lehigh Valley Art Salon," 6 - 6:30 p.m. Mondays, WDIY 88.1 FM, and, where they're archived. Email Paul Willistein: pwillistein@ You can follow Paul Willistein on Twitter and friend Paul Willistein on facebook.