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Movie Review

12 Years a Slave

MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

Reviewed by: Brian C. Johnson
CONTRIBUTOR

Very Offensive
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Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Adults
Genre:
History Biography Drama
Length:
2 hr. 13 min.
Year of Release:
2013
USA Release:
August 30, 2013 (festival)
October 18, 2013 (limited)
November 1, 2013 (wide)
DVD: March 4, 2014
Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures click photos to ENLARGE Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures
Relevant Issues
Copyright, Fox Searchlight Pictures

the importance of personal freedom

Racism
Racism, Racial Issues and Christianity
Get biblical answers to racial hot-topics. Where did the races come from? How did skin color come about? Why is it important to have a biblical foundation for such issues?
Slavery

Joseph—an innocent man in the Bible who was sold into slavery

slaves in the Bible

SLAVERY—Does the Bible condone slavery? Answer

FOUNDING FATHERS AND SLAVERY—Were all of America’s Founding Fathers racists, pro-slavery, and hypocrites? Answer

abolitionists


unfaithful husband / adultery and fornication in the Bible

Pain and suffering

Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer

What about the issue of suffering? Doesn’t this prove that there is no God and that we are on our own? Answer

Does God feel our pain? Answer

ORIGIN OF BAD—How did bad things come about? Answer

Did God make the world the way it is now? What kind of world would you create? Answer

Rape

rape victims’ stories

shame and rape

Featuring: Chiwetel Ejiofor … Solomon Northup
Brad PittBass
Michael FassbenderEdwin Epps
Benedict CumberbatchFord
Paul GiamattiFreeman
Paul DanoTibeats
Sarah Paulson … Mistress Epps
more »
Director: Steve McQueen—“Shame,” “Hunger
Producer: Regency Enterprises
River Road Entertainment
more »
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

Every so often a film emerges that requires audiences to dig deep to find the fiber to stay glued to the seats even though what they see is boorish, frightening, sickening, and offensive. “12 Years a Slave” is such a film.

Let me begin by saying that the usual “Christian” response to this film would be to shun it because of the excessive nudity (female full frontal and male and female backsides) and horrific scenes of violence, including rape. That being said, I also need to argue that it is a film that should be seen, as it is a subject that we as Christians, as Americans, as human beings need to confront—the history and lasting legacy of slavery and racism—and more importantly, to examine the responsibility of the Christian church to continue to dismantle systems of oppression while fostering our commitment to racial reconciliation.

At the center of this controversial film is Solomon Northrup, a free Black man living with his wife and two children in Saratoga, NY. Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor—“American Gangster, “Inside Man”) enjoys the sweet life of an accomplished violinist and is well respected in his local community. During a trip to Washington, DC, Northrup is kidnapped and marked as a runaway slave named “Platt” and sold into the Deep South where he confronts a life of drudgery and baser humanity. Can his will to live and his desire to gain his freedom sustain the indignities of the barbarism of his masters Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch)?

Northrup at times befriends and is rebuffed by his fellow slaves, especially Master Epps’ unwilling concubine Patsey, masterfully played by little-known actress, Lupita Nyong'o. The cast is rounded out by numerous stars in smaller roles including Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Taran Killam, Paul Dano, and Sarah Paulson as the wicked Mrs. Epps.

“12 Years a Slave” is based upon the memoir of Solomon Northrup who was stolen away from his family at the time when Fugitive Slave Laws were at their height of prominence. His story became a banner of the abolitionist movement until it was overshadowed by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the mid-19th century.

Directed by Steve McQueen (best known for his work on 2011’s “Shame” where he also teamed with Fassbender) and adapted for the screen by John Ridley (“Red Tails” and “U-Turn”), this film does not shy away from showing the brutality of the slave trade. You will wince numerous times! It is difficult to watch!

In recent interviews, McQueen and Ridley have shared how they wanted to stay as true to the book’s descriptions and depictions. Much of the violence and nudity were true to form, which in some ways makes the film a documentary. The “peculiar institution” of slavery is and was a national tragedy that should not be stylistically represented—we need to understand the ugliness of it all in order to continue the healing. Much like we felt as we grimaced our way through “The Passion of the Christ” because it was an important film, I believe we need to watch this film.

The best part (and simultaneously the worst part) of the film is the question of the morality of those good folks who justified the enslavement of Africans and others as “Christian duty” and misused Scriptures to support their trade. This film does a fine job of raising the question, but regrettably, none of the “heroes” of the film profess abolition of slavery as a Christian obligation—that is left for those who view it as an ethical question (for instance, Brad Pitt’s character, Bass, who ultimately champions for Northrup.

SLAVERY—Does the Bible condone slavery? Answer

Cinematically, the film is beautiful! At times, I felt like I was watching a theatrical dramatic performance live on stage, and the sound editing overlapped in several key areas that properly underscored the tensions of the action. You will come face-to-face with the Northrup’s emotional and mental pain as he wrestles with his condition. You will feel the torment of Nyongo’s “Patsey” as she cries out for death.

This is an important film (read, Oscar-worthy). I believe viewers should see it. I do urge caution because of the subject matter. Parents, go see it first to determine if your mature teens would be able to handle it. Regrettably, the film has only started in limited markets. I had to drive nearly 3 hours to see it, so I am hoping it opens soon to the smaller venues.

Violence: Extreme / Profanity: Moderate to heavy—“G*d-d*mn” (4), “for G*d’s sakes,” “damn” (10), “hell” (3) / Sex: Moderate to heavy / Nudity: Heavy to extreme

Editor’s Note: Because of this film's brutal violence, nudity, and profanity, we urge caution. A better film about slavery from a Christian point of view is the award-winning “Amazing Grace” (2007) PG which we do recommend for teens and family.

Other films about slavery include: “Runaway SlavePG / “AmistadR / “BelovedR

RACISM—What are the consequences of racial prejudice and false beliefs about the origin of races? Answer

SUFFERING—Why does God allow innocent people to suffer? Answer

See list of Relevant Issues—questions-and-answers.


Viewer CommentsSend your comments
Comments below:
Positive
Positive—Great film! I brought my 18 year old son to see this movie, and he said the history books didn’t do the topic of slavery justice!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4½
—Bob G., age 57 (USA)
Positive—This movie is offensive due to the topic of slavery in and of itself being offensive. But this is a film that should be seen and discussed as a family, community, and nation. I have seen many movies on this topic, and this film dared to go where others have not. Kudos to Mr. McQueen for not sugar-coating a very brutal topic.

While this film is OUTSTANDING, I admit it will be tough to sit through a second time. It is emotionally draining with parts that are downright gut-wrenching. As for Leonardo’s comments, I’d like to start by saying to compare the African slave trade to the Transatlantic slave trade is like comparing apples and oranges. Both are AWFUL blights on humanity, but the Transatlantic slave trade was rooted and perpetuated in colonialism and racism that continues to permeate many elements of society. more »
My Ratings: Moral rating: Very Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Marin, age 34 (USA)
Positive—Nudity, a few sex scenes—one is a rape scene. This is not your Hollywood-type sex movie, this is the reality of what the Black people went through and suffered during the times of slavery. Some of the scenes were brutal and hard to watch, but it was worth going to see. Excellent acting and heart felt compassion toward the people in the film. Some bad language, but again, reality toward the topic of the film.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Clara, age 54 (USA)
—Excellent. Not for everyone though. As for the gentleman who liked movie, but gave it a neutral because he feels critics talk of America’s guilt. He may have a point, but this is not the venue for it. This venue is to discuss this particular movie in itself. While we need not feel guilt we should at least aware. I have heard Christians say slavery brought heathens to Christ. This kind of thinking leads us to dangerous actions. But back to the movie. Excellent all around. The acting. The directing. The photography. Hard to watch, but nonetheless important
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—John Franquiz, age 53 (USA)
Neutral
Neutral—Let’s get one thing clear, Slavery is a blight on humanity. Whether it’s Blacks in the South, Jews enslaved by the Egyptians, Concentration Camp captives enslaved by Hitler, by Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung. “12 Years a Slave” is a hard film to watch because of the injustice and suffering rightly portrayed. Steve McQueen III is to be congratulated for his strong work. The difficulty is not so much the film as the majority of professional critics who in their reviews used terms such as “America’s conscience must be shaken,” and “We are all complicit in this guilt.” Excuse me? My grandparents emigrated to America 40 years after Slavery was abolished, which means neither they nor my parents—nor myself, were remotely linked to Slavery.

While I detest Slavery and am sincerely empathetic to Black slavery in the South, my conscience is quite clear. While in Africa, Africans I got to know told me they were puzzled why Americans today feel guilty over Slavery. Factual history is that Black Africans sold other Black Africans into Slavery—either for the money or to get rid of an enemy. Today’s Black Africans feel no guilt over Slavery, so why should today’s White Americans?

And what about the Europeans who were involved in the Slave Trade? Spain captured 25,000 Black Africans and shipped them to Cuba for forced Labor. There were other Europeans involved in the Slave Trade. Where is the European guilt? The critics should not blame America. Why? Because hundreds of thousands of white Americans died in the Civil War in order to end slavery.

It is my understanding a Christian should love the truth. Should today’s Jews feel guilty because Jews sentenced Jesus to death? The truth is that Slavery is horrible, and all slave owners like those depicted in “12 Years…” should be punished. Problem is… they’re all dead. We Americans should respect and honor those once enslaved, but we had no part in it and share no guilt.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Leonardo, age 71 (USA)
Neutral—This film has been done to have you experience what the writer went through. There is some nudity and blood being real they portray nothing short of accuracy. This film however is not for the faint of heart as it can either help to make or break the onlooker. Make: This is the true real life experience by a man, Break: Can help weak minds to start a riot. This movie has won awards for its rendition of the book.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Better than Average / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Kellson, age 29 (Trinidad)
Neutral—This movie was wonderfully shot. The sets and scenery all looked incredibly believable and realistic. Many films struggle to make you believe you are seeing something from over 100 years ago, but this film did not. The cinematography and lighting were some of the best I’ve ever seen. Almost every actor delivered a praise worthy performance. Yes, it seems as this is just a long list of compliments.

One of my few complaints from a technical standpoint were some of the scenes were overly drawn out, to the point of being annoying. The passing of time was also confusing. During the hanging scene, a whole day is supposed to a have passed, though that didn’t seem clear to me at all. Despite these few problems from an artistic standpoint this is one of the best films I have seen in a while. Although nudity was not shown I still question the necessity of the explicit sexual scenes. Especially the one at the film’s open, which seemed to be unnecessary. Again when the slaves are being sold, we see much nudity although genitalia is not shown or is hidden by use of clever shadowing. Because of these scenes I remain neutral about the film. My position on nudity in films is undecided.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 4
—Thomas Pawlowski, age 19 (USA)
Negative
Negative—Hard to watch, unnecessary brutality, offensive. Depicted most white men in the film as sadistic and mad. Another film that cast a dim light on Christianity; made Christians seem fanatical and hypocritical. My husband, friend and myself saw the movie and all felt down pretty much throughout and after it ended. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone. Unless you enjoy watching sadistic men and women feed their soul sickness, stay away from this one.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Extremely Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Lucy B., age 73 (USA)
Negative—Although the material is worthwhile, I don’t think it was executed that well. The passage of time wasn’t obvious to me, the film editing had scenes which went on too long. I think the filmmakers were emulating Terrence Malick (an overrated director) in the cinematography/editing.

Hans Zimmer’s scoring was minimal (films with not much scoring do work, and I could offer a number of examples), but a little more in certain places would have helped convey emotion and even the passage of time. His music didn’t really work and at one time, there was this boom boomy noise which ruined it further.

Some of the dialogue was hard to make out, particularly the Southern accents of some of the white men. Give me Roots anytime!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Average / Moviemaking quality: 2
—Dirk Wickenden, age 46 (United Kingdom)
Comments from young people
Positive—“12 Years A Slave” is easily one of the most important films ever made. Featuring fantastic performances, sharp direction, and a great script, it’s most definitely an instant classic. This movie should be seen by everyone!
My Ratings: Moral rating: Offensive / Moviemaking quality: 5
—C, age 15 (USA)
Positive—Why this film is offensive? When I saw this film I felt horrible, I felt like s**t as human being. Because the topic of the slavery is horrible. Sad. In that time, used the name of God for the slavery and horror to the slaves. I loved the film from the beginning to the end. The acting, the script, the locations, the art, the exceptional music by Hans Zimmer, the story, oh my! Don’t make me start! This film is like a reminder that some humans are horrible, racists, it shows the nature of the man in that time because we don’t know how this people suffered for real, it’s same thing with “Django Unchained,” but, in Django, Tarantino shows a slave black man defending his honor and his freedom. Speaking of which, Django was outstanding.

I’m under 18, and I loved this film. For me this film is excellent, not offensive. Excellent is less; this film, it’s OUTSTANDING. This deserves the Oscars that it won—100%.
My Ratings: Moral rating: Excellent! / Moviemaking quality: 5
—Sergio De La Cruz, age 17 (Guatemala)
Movie Critics

…A strong, involving, at times overstated telling of an extraordinary life story. …
—Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter

…an agonizingly magnificent movie: the first great big-screen dramatization of slavery. … It’s Ejiofor's extraordinary performance that holds “12 Years a Slave” together. … [A]
—Owen Gleiberman, Entertainment Weekly

…This epic account of an unbreakable soul makes even Scarlett O’Hara’s struggles seem petty by comparison. …
—Peter Debruge, Variety

…A masterpiece of form, content, emotion and performance. … Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging… [4]
—Ann Hornaday, The Washington Post

…An essential story, well told at last… [4]
—Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer

…“12 Years a Slave” paints haunting portrait of endurance… a deeply evocative, and brilliantly acted drama, that graphically and poetically depicts the wide-ranging evils of slavery. …
—Claudia Puig, USA Today

…visceral intensity and exceptional filmmaking… Far from the push-button catharsis offered by most Hollywood redemption tales, the work is sober and deliberate, a mix of visceral intensity and artful design. …
—Liam Lacey, The Globe and Mail

…Holds nothing back in show of suffering… Mr. McQueen has largely dispensed with the conventions of art cinema to make something close to a classical narrative; in this movie, the emphasis isn’t on visual style but on Solomon and his unmistakable desire for freedom. …
—Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

Comments from non-viewers
Neutral—I did not actually view the movie. I thought this link/information might be helpful after you view the movie, it helps weigh the “reel facts” to the “real facts”. http://historyvsHollywood.com/reelfaces/12-years-a-slave.php
—Pam, age 41 (USA)

Sorry, no other viewer comments received yet. If you have seen this movie, PLEASE share your observations and insights with others to be posted here. GO