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Telluride Review: Steve McQueen's '12 Years A Slave' Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender & More

by Chris Willman
August 31, 2013 10:55 AM
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12 Years A Slave

Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” instantly establishes itself as the most unflinching of all slave dramas, which is to say, there is plenty of flinching, not to mention cowering and recoiling and passing out, thanks to beatings and whippings that arrive at roughly 10-to-15-minute intervals throughout a 133-minute running time. “Amistad,” meet the Marquis de Sade, in the form of slavemaster Michael Fassbender, who puts his victims through more tortures than Mel Gibson ever could have imagined for Jesus.

This revolving door of graphically rendered brutalities might feel like its own punishment if not for an array of astonishing performances that’s practically a one-stop Oscar-nomination shopping spree. At the film’s world premiere in Telluride Friday night, it quickly became apparent that leading man Chiwetel Ejiofor had moved to the head of the line of best actor candidates, with Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o sure to contend in the supporting categories. Even those of us who aren’t Oscar bloggers should break out whatever mnemonic devices we need to immediately commit Ejiofor’s and Nyong'o’s names to the tips of our tongues.

12 Years A Slave

'12 Years' has a sex scene within its first five minutes, which will have some viewers sniggering that they wouldn’t expect anything less from the director of “Shame.” But there are no pleasures to follow for any of the characters after that brief undercover coupling in a crowded slave’s quarters. After that flash-forward, we see Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) and his family in happier times, as free and even privileged blacks in the north, before he’s kidnapped and transported to the South for a quick and easy sale. He pleads his case to captors along the way, who respond by pounding Northup each time he insists his name isn’t really Platt. It’s a classic wrong-man/mistaken-identity setup, although no noir ever required this many scarring prosthetics.

A parade of character actors famous for playing sleazeballs get to mistreat Solomon, starting with Paul Giamatti, and including Paul Dano as an imbecile sub-“master” who can’t stand the thought that there might be an educated slave in the midst. Transfers in ownership ensure that Solomon’s lot goes from bad to worse to worst, as he finally ends up in the hands of notorious “slave-breaker” Edwin Epps (Fassbender). Epps isn’t even the most villainous of the many detestable white people in the movie: that would be his jealous and bloodthirsty wife, played by Sarah Paulson, who makes Lady MacBeth look like Olive Oyl.

12 Years A Slave

It may seem foolish to complain that a movie about slavery makes the white characters look bad, but John Ridley’s script certainly sees things in terms of black and white in every way, which means that all the Southern white characters are caught up in their own awards race for most contemptible. Paulson’s one-note beeyotch character doesn’t do the actress any favors, but Fassbender, in what could have been a mustache-twirling part, is utterly transfixing as the kind of guy who really does have a deeply emotional investment in manic racial sadism.

“Long-suffering” isn’t easy to play with layers, either, but Nyong'o—as Epp’s slave mistress, who actually manages to get privileges taken away, not added, for her sexual services—is a heartbreaker in every way. She’d steal the movie if it weren’t Ejiofor’s performance, but few actors could pull off the combination of dignity and torment he manages here. McQueen gives the actor a lot of dialogue-free long takes, including one close-up toward the end that’s content to study his face for what seems like at least a minute as Solomon considers the possibility that his last and best chance for freedom has ended in another betrayal.

12 Years A Slave

Among supporting players, Alfre Woodward has one great scene as a gossipy, highly intelligent, exalted lady among slaves, and she makes you wish the movie had a few more character sketches like hers among the lashings. Executive producer Brad Pitt shows up in the last 20 minutes, looking vaguely Amish, and given that there hasn’t been a likeable white character since the opening minutes of the movie, it feels incongruous to see him suddenly come on screen and immediately give a speech about God-given racial parity. But by this time, we’re ready for the light at the end of the tunnel, even if his dialogue does seem right out of “Lincoln.”

Although Ridley sometimes writes his villains’ lines a little more broadly and obviously than needed, the overall mixture of period flavor with contemporary accessibility in the verbiage couldn’t be any better balanced. As for McQueen’s work, advance chatter had some wondering whether he had what it took to make a mainstream entertainment his third time around, but there won’t be much questioning of that after doubters see “12 Years a Slave.” It has the strokes you’d expect out of a studio picture but also some moments few other directors would have attempted, like an agonizingly beautiful sequence in which Solomon literally tip-toes his way through a near-hanging that goes on for several silent minutes. If McQueen could forge a career working arthouse moments into multiplex movies, that’d be a case of mistaken identity we’d be happy to live with. [A-]

Browse through all our coverage of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival to date by clicking here. 

"12 Years A Slave" is receiving rave reviews out of Telluride. Click on page 2 to read more of the buzz, which of course has the word "Oscar" being thrown around quite a bit.

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  • Bill Edmunds | September 7, 2013 11:53 AMReply

    I'm worried about the review's claim that Pitt plays the only likable white person. Having read Northup's memoir, I can tell you he had a deep respect and even love for his first owner, a man named William Ford (in the film played by Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup even said he would have willingly stayed with Ford his entire life if he could have had his family with him. Northup was keenly aware that Ford had grown up in a society that accepted people of african descent as being 'made' for slavery, and did not blame Ford for this sentiment, although he did ponder many times how Ford could be such a kind and generous man who did not see the hypocrisy of owning other human beings. Sounds like the film might not portray this character accurately. Then again, Fassbender's character appears to be an amalgam of two different characters, so I guess changes are inevitable.

  • JOSH SUTTON | September 7, 2013 4:07 PM

    Cummberbatch's character is benevolent and civilized but in no ways likeable (perhaps sympathetic to an extent?) At the end of the day, though he show's Solomon favour, he is still a slave owner who lives in constant denial of that fact that Northup is obviously educated and wrongfully enslaved. He turns a blind eye to this fact to suit his likings and loses any likability as a result.

  • Higher Value | September 5, 2013 9:47 AMReply

    I wish Hollywood was more careful and accountable about making these "Hyper Exaggerated -Sensitive Racial Movies". When they, (Producers/Actors) go back to the hills with their rich white friends, the regular white people go back to normal life, where there happens to be a lot super charged hyper racists black youth ready to bash "Massa's" head in.

  • Bill Edmunds | September 7, 2013 12:07 PM

    In what way should they be more careful and accountable? They're adapting a true story. I certainly don't want to see a sanitized version of this incredible memoir.

  • james palmer | September 1, 2013 2:03 PMReply

    i didn't care to much for fruit vale station,but loved the butler.

  • Alan b | September 1, 2013 2:03 AMReply

    Haaaaa brrrere derrrrr

  • Alan B | August 31, 2013 10:32 PMReply

    Another phenomenal review: "All the white characters are depicted as villains, which is bad, except the one character who isn't, and he's incongruous." Fascinating insight.

  • Alan B | September 4, 2013 4:51 AM

    Yeah, good one. You really nailed it, Alex.

  • Alex | September 3, 2013 1:14 PM

    And yet you are here reading every single day, commenting every single day multiple times.

  • Alan B | September 1, 2013 4:59 AM

    You can't ruin what's already broken. With the exception of a couple of writers, the staff has ALWAYS been smug, witless and completely lacking in integrity or intellect. I have lost count of the amount of times a writer or commentator has impersonated me because of their anger or their own weak inability to engage in a debate, so please don't blame me for the intellectual failings of others. On another site, Toro even told me to "get raped", so please let's have everyone take responsibility for their own actions, shall we, instead of blaming someone for other people's clear emotional problems.

  • Rachel | August 31, 2013 11:36 PM

    You're such a fucking shithead, you know that? You're one of the many that ruin what could be a good comments section. But then again, I've heard you've done this on many other movie blogs too so it must just be your winning personality.

  • Based on a true account | August 31, 2013 2:10 PMReply

    Why doesn't this review acknowledge that the movie is based on the true life autobiographical book of free man kidnapped and sold into slavery Solomon Northup? The white people you see depicted were real people not fictional characters, so complaining about their cruelty as some sort of disservice to audiences or to white people is bizarre. Also, I don't see you mention William Ford (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife. They are white people in Northup's slave experience who maintain good conditions for their slaves and honestly want to be good people and benevolent slave owners. They are part of an unjust system and a bigoted culture, but within that context they are nice people. Northup appreciated Ford and his wife very much and praised them highly, unsurprising since his other owners were so awful and abusive.

  • Ray | September 15, 2013 9:54 PM

    I don't care what race you are, Chris. I don't care. If you OWN someone, you're not a good person. When you buy someone, you are not a good person. When you buy them and make them work for you for NOTHING. I don't care how nice you are. You are scum. And an alleged 'black man' telling me the opposite means less than nothing to me. It doesn't change my mind. And I'm a black woman.

  • Chris | September 4, 2013 5:32 AM

    Umm, a slave owner can be a "good person", as evident by their treatment of their slaves. In a society where the ownership of other peoples is the norm, you must then judge the people of the society by that norm.

    And this is coming from a black man, so please, no one try to play the "race" card.

  • Ray | September 2, 2013 2:21 AM

    "Also, I don't see you mention William Ford (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) and his wife. They are white people in Northup's slave experience who maintain good conditions for their slaves and honestly want to be good people and benevolent slave owners. They are part of an unjust system and a bigoted culture, but within that context they are nice people. "

    What? They are good people? THEY OWNED OTHER PEOPLE! Good people don't own other people. Do you understand that? Good people don't buy human beings and make them work for them for FREE for the rest of their lives. I don't care how "good" the conditions were that they "maintained" for them. They OWNED them. What the hell are you talking about? Don't ever refer to a SLAVE OWNER as a "good person". They were a slave owner, which, by definition, makes them NOT A GOOD PERSON. Honestly, I can't with you Cumberbatch fans.

  • Donella | September 1, 2013 6:02 PM

    I also found the complaints about John Ridley's dialogue bizarre. Does the article's author understand that 12 Years a Slave is an adapted screenplay of a narrative written in 1853 (which probably explains the similarity in language usage to Lincoln.

  • Nikki | August 31, 2013 2:28 PM

    Agreed 100%! Did you want them to write the script NOT based on the book?

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