'12 Years a Slave': What the Critics Are Saying

1:14 PM PST 10/17/2013 by Hilary Lewis

The often-brutal true story is praised by reviewers for its willingness to reveal the dark side of the antebellum U.S., with actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender also earning plaudits.

Fox Searchlight's 12 Years a Slave doesn't hit theaters until Friday, but it's already been highly praised by critics, with the film posting a 97 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

The film tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery. After a nightmarish, 12-year ordeal, he's miraculously rescued and publishes a memoir of his experience, on which the movie is based.

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Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Brad Pitt, the film has frequently been mentioned as a likely Oscar nominee.

But the movie features several disturbing moments as it explores the harsh reality of slavery in the U.S.

Check out what critics are saying about the harrowing true story:

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy
, who reviewed the movie at the Telluride Film Festival, praises the film as a whole, as something that will capture the attention of the viewing public and lead to serious discussions.

"Perhaps the nature of the story is such that the film can’t help but be obvious and quite melodramatic at times, but it gets better as it goes along and builds to a moving finish," he writes. "Despite the upsetting and vivid brutality, Fox Searchlight has a winner here that will generate copious media coverage, rivet the attention of the black public, stir much talk in political and educational circles and appeal to film audiences who crave something serious and different."

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Indeed, several scenes are tough to watch, with McCarthy writing, "Quite a few scenes, of [Northup]’s near-lynching and some others’ actual hangings, of terrific whippings and other punishments, are pretty rough."

The New York Times' Manohla Dargis argues that the film's many disturbing scenes should help to demolish the myths about slavery.

"In large part, 12 Years a Slave is an argument about American slavery that, in image after image, both reveals it as a system (signified in one scene by the sights and ominous, mechanical sounds of a boat waterwheel) and demolishes its canards, myths and cherished symbols," Dargis writes. "There are no lovable masters here or cheerful slaves. There are also no messages, wagging fingers or final-act summations or sermons. Mr. McQueen’s method is more effective and subversive because of its primarily old-fashioned, Hollywood-style engagement.

"It’s a brilliant strategy that recognizes the seductions of movies that draw you wholly into their narratives and that finds Mr. McQueen appropriating the very film language that has been historically used to perpetuate reassuring (to some) fabrications about American history. One of the shocks of 12 Years a Slave is that it reminds you how infrequently stories about slavery have been told on the big screen, which is why it’s easy to name exceptions, like Richard Fleischer’s demented, and at times dazzling, 1975 film, Mandingo. The greater jolt, though, is that 12 Years a Slave isn’t about another Scarlett O’Hara, but about a man who could be one of those anonymous, bent-over black bodies hoeing fields in the opening credits of Gone With the Wind, a very different 'story of the Old South.' "

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Dargis notes that the antebellum period trappings so often romanticized by Hollywood are, in this film, "the backdrop for an outrage."

She adds: "12 Years a Slave isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States -- but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century."

Rolling Stone's Peter Travers also touches on the film's larger impact: "[McQueen's] cinematic gut punch looms like a colossus over the Mandingo-Mammy-fixated drivel that passes as muckraking in Hollywood. Working with African-American screenwriter John Ridley, McQueen makes it impossible to regard slavery from the safe remove of TV screens (Roots), Hollywood sugarcoating (Gone With the Wind) and Tarantino satire (Django Unchained). This prickly renegade restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. You don't just watch 12 Years a Slave. You bleed with it, share its immediacy and feel the wounds that may be beyond healing ... Proving himself a world-class director, McQueen basically makes slaves of us all. It hurts to watch it."

Many critics also praise Ejiofor's performance, with THR's McCarthy writing that the actor "is terrific in a demanding character who’s put through the wringer physically, mentally and emotionally. One feels his determination to get back to his family virtually at all times even though he doesn’t talk about it, and toward the end there is an unusual extended close-up of him in which he looks out toward the unknown future as his eyes express a quicksilver array of emotions, from wonder to fear to hope."

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Travers writes: "As Solomon, Ejiofor gives an electrifying, engulfing performance that will be talked about for years. The educated Solomon is forbidden to protest his situation or even articulate it. Not without being beaten or worse. But Ejiofor's eyes, deep pools of confusion, pain and barely repressed rage, tell us all we need to know. Want proof that acting can be an art form? Here it is."

New York Magazine's David Edelstein adds: "Ejiofor has been overdue for stardom since Dirty Pretty Things, and he’ll get it now. He’s the kind of great actor who can work in pantomime, conveying terror and anguish with the angle of his shoulders and the level of his head. At times he wears his disgust too visibly for a man who has supposedly learned to keep his head down, but the struggle to remain inside himself is vivid."

Dargis claims, "Ejiofor’s restrained, open, translucent performance works as a ballast, something to cling onto, especially during the frenzies of violence." The Times' critic also praises Fassbender's role as the villainous plantation owner Edwin Epps.

"Fassbender, skittish and weirdly spider-like, grabs your attention with curdled intensity," she writes. "He’s so arresting that at first it seems as if the performance will soon slip out of Mr. McQueen’s control, and that the character will become just another irresistibly watchable, flamboyant heavy."

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Edelstein is less impressed with Fassbender's performance, writing, "His high theatricality keeps him at the level of melodrama. He doesn’t solve the riddle of this terrible man."

Instead, he finds Sarah Paulson's performance as Fassbender's character's wife more interesting: "Mistress Epps often tries to affect a mask of kindness but is thoroughly poisoned by jealousy. Punishment of the slave on whom her husband fixates becomes an addiction."

But Edelstein also believes there's a limit to McQueen's work as a director.

"I realize there’s a danger in suggesting that McQueen is guilty of overkill: that it could be taken as an attempt to say 'Slavery wasn’t as torturous as all that.' The hell it wasn’t. From a political and humanist standpoint, there are plenty of reasons to champion 12 Years a Slave. In his book, Northup directly addresses an audience that (mind-bogglingly) still exists -- the one that insists that many slaves were happy in the bosoms of their masters. It should shame people with Confederate flags on their walls (“It’s about states’ rights!”) or Paula Deen types who harbor nostalgia for the elegance of the antebellum South. Epps reads Scripture to his slaves and lingers on a passage calling for them to be beaten “with many stripes”-- proof that the Good Book can be employed in the service of manifold evils. The movie nails all this, and it’s smashingly effective as melodrama. But McQueen’s directorial voice -- cold, stark, deterministic -- keeps it from attaining the kind of grace that marks the voice of a true film artist."

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