12 Years a Slave - Movie Reviews - Rotten Tomatoes

12 Years a Slave Reviews

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Super Reviewer
January 26, 2014
It's not really clear what McQueen intended with this unflinching but detached story of survival, as he throws together scenes of brutal realism with theatrical dialogue, cartoonish villains and a plot that seems more interested in the torture than offering any new insight into the subject.
Super Reviewer
September 11, 2013
One of the best films of 2013. Nominated for an impressive nine Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Winner of four Golden Globes including Best Picture and Best Actor and was victorious in capturing three Oscars including Best Supported Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay and winning the Best Picture Oscar of 2013.
Super Reviewer
½ May 1, 2014
So far, the best of the Academy Award contenders I've seen. Next would be The Wolf of Wall Street. 12 Years a Slave is a must-see.
Super Reviewer
January 16, 2014
A worthy best picture winner based on the excellent performances and the importance of the subject matter, but this is not an easy movie to watch. If you can't handle graphic torture scenes, stay far away. There's quite of few of them and they are brutal. I admire that the actors and actresses were willing to put themselves through it. The movie itself is a great redemption story and emotionally compelling (especially the ending), but it can be slow at times. It's not something I would probably want to watch again, but absolutely worth it at least once if you can stomach it. The average film-goer that grabs this for a watch based on its awards will not like it more than likely because it is not a mainstream audience movie, but that is not something that should take away its accomplishments on and off the film.
Super Reviewer
½ November 28, 2012
This is the crowing work of 2013. An instant classic. A true emotional powerhouse of a film. A triumphant masterpiece of the highest kind. An extremely powerful, deeply moving and truly breathtaking movie. Director, Steve McQueen outdoes himself once again, crafting a true story and shows great dedication and commitment to the material and the characters. An unforgettably unapologetic piece of work that will talked about and remembered for years. A brutal and vicious account of slavery and its cruel nature that shows its devastation and its tragedy but also a glimmer of hope. The all-star cast is beyond superb. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a magnificent and brilliant performance, he gives the performance of his career. Michael Fassbender gives an vicious and powerful performance. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific. Brad Pitt is excellent. Lupita Nyong'o gives an emotionally devastating and great performance. A movie that has outstanding power. It has brutal darkness in it but also a fine beauty. It's truly impossible to turn away from.
Super Reviewer
½ March 18, 2014
An Oscar winning movie? I definitely agree with the critics and audiences that root for this movie to take home the biggest prize of that night.. Not only that Brad Pitt and the others produce a wonderful story about a free man that been kidnapped and made a slave for 12 years with a very touching story, but the cast also did a wonderful job such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, or Lupita Nyong'o.. And the power of this movie depends on its story that made the audiences can feel like what Solomon has experienced.. The emotion that this movie offered was that awesome so I was drawn into this movie.. But the one thing that kinda disturbing me is Steve McQueen's directing style because it is a little similar to Terence Malick's but luckily they're not exact same..
Super Reviewer
October 14, 2013
There hasn't been a film that broaches the area of slavery with such candor and honesty since the television miniseries "Roots." "Amistad" was a great example as well, but this film really shows the violence, hatred, and social repudiation of the horrifying actions that stemmed from slavery. Solomon Northup's story is vivid and inspiring, giving a new perspective from a man who was born free and then caged, like so many others taken from their homelands and put to work in America. This film is beautiful in a despicable, low-down kind of way, thanks in large part to the amazing soruce material. Steve McQueen's films all take on issues in history that are gritty, that shame the viewer, maybe even alienate the audience. Here he makes you very uncomfortable with long takes, unpleasant visuals, and painful scenes with actors who live through these people's lives with gusto. Ejiofor is brilliant, as he has been in previous roles, shining through as Northup through the twelve years of his incarceration. Fassbender gives another stunning performance, proving that he has the staying power of a great actor. Finally, Lupita N'yongo deserves even more than the grand praise she has been given for her tremendous performance as Patsy, never given verdict, never free and yet trying to stay alive in her sense of the word. It's a chilling indictment of the past, our present, and the climactic turn of our shared future, and that's a lot to ask from one film.
Super Reviewer
½ March 13, 2014
Solomon Northup -- once a free man, next is detained as a slave.

Steve McQueen, with his third directorial outing, crafts a powerful social commentary/biopic about slavery, a topic that's been covered through almost all mediums rigorously, but none is quite as commanding as "12 Years a Slave".

Now, a quick glance at McQueen's filmography can make even the coldest person sigh a sigh of sorrow ("Hunger" or "Shame" anyone?). It's a no brainer that McQueen has delivered dismal films and quite honestly, "12 Years a Slave", which is based on a book named, you guessed it, "12 Years a Slave", is no different. You will be uncomfortable. You will squirm in your seat. You may or may not cry; I'm not judging the macho men out there. It's all a testament to McQueen's incredible expertise in concocting narratives with absurdly palpable emotion. The techniques don't feel cheap, overused, or a ploy to simply stir the audience's heartstrings. McQueen delivers an incredibly powerful narrative -- nothing more, nothing less.

Which is another reason to commend McQueen -- he solely leaves the narrative power to the actors and screenplay. I've always had issues with Chiwetel Ejiofor after his disappointing performance in "Children of Men" or "Four Brothers". But after seeing the quieter moments, as he stared off into space in despair, that's when I knew that this is his best performance to date. McQueen trusted Ejiofor. He was unafraid to leave the camera rolling as Ejiofor conjured up emotions of grief and hurt. And what more can I say about Michael Fassbender? Though I've got to admit that he couldn't quite hold up a Southern accent, he was captivating nonetheless. But the real power came from behind the camera -- Steve McQueen himself. He directed "12 Years a Slave" masterfully, orchestrating and juggling different emotions one after the other. As a result, the ending brought a tear to my eyes, a first for a movie, ever. Yes, I admit it. Don't hate.

On such topics such as this, it's real easy for filmmakers to get lost in the depression of it all. The whippings, the harassment, the yellings, and all the hurt can really get to you and as a whole, make the film just feel like a bash fest. "The Pursuit of Happyness" falls victim to this and ends up becoming a movie that is simply about Will Smith's character going through crap. But perhaps the greatest part about this film is the ending. This is quite possibly one of the greatest endings put to film. All the emotions that generated from the beginning of the film to the end culminate and are fully realized in the last few scenes. It's absolutely overwhelming and one that is bound to move many.

"12 Years a Slave" is arresting, a film that needs to be watched and is easily the best movie that touches on the topic of slavery. Even more so, it is a film that is both informative, extraordinarily emotional, and an incredible eye-opener to slavery's mental destruction to man.
Super Reviewer
March 9, 2014
Great film in every way -- although if you've read Uncle Tom's Cabin, the plot won't offer any surprises.
Daniel Mumby
Super Reviewer
January 17, 2014
Film fans have a very love-hate relationship with the Oscars. We love them, or at least put up with them, because they are a means of getting the general public to see more adventurous, unusual or sometimes challenging films, and they form the perfect icebreaker for film-related conversation. Likewise, we hate the Oscars for being a bad advert for the film industry, being out of touch, smugly self-satisfied, and usually getting it very, very wrong.

In this manner, Oscar buzz has to be handled the same way every year: acknowledged, but taken with a pinch of salt, in the knowledge that the best picture probably won't win Best Picture. This year, however, is different, because for once the Academy got it right. 12 Years a Slave is a truly transcendent piece of film-making which cements Steve McQueen's burgeoning reputation, and is perhaps the most deserved Best Picture win for a decade.

In the past, films which have explored the subject of American slavery have tended to be from the white man's point of view. Films like Amistad, Lincoln and Amazing Grace have noble intentions and often a lot of talent behind them, but they tend to view slavery as an issue that noble-minded, morally-upright white men must resolve, in opposition to less noble-minded, morally-upright white men. In doing so the people whose cause they claim to be championing are unduly and often unintentionally marginalised.

McQueen's film, by contrast, is told very much from from the slaves' point-of-view. It's very easy to put this down to his status as a Hollywood outsider: being a British director who started out as a visual artist, one could argue that he brings an objectivity to the subject that no American filmmaker could have done. As compelling as this argument may seem, however it does ignore both the transatlantic nature of the production and McQueen's own ancestry, which includes many victims of slavery.

More important than McQueen's background or status is his sensibility, which is key to the film's success. He has a recurring interest in dehumanisation or the abuse and degradation of the human body. Having handled starvation in Hunger, and sex addiction and attempted suicide in Shame, he now gives us the commodification of human beings into property, and the physical abuse given to slaves in the form of lashes, attempted hanging and rape. The film is deeply emotional but also disturbingly clinical, a very rare trick to have pulled off.

McQueen establishes this approach with the opening shots: a cold open on a sugar cane plantation in media res, and then a sex scene between two slaves which is the very definition of unsexy. We see our two participants in close-up, moving slowly against each other but with not a shred of joy or love on their faces. In doing this, McQueen shows how slavery strips people of their humanity, to the point where even the most sacred and joyous of acts have become empty and devoid of meaning. Like Naomi Watts' masturbation scene at the end of Mulholland Drive, sex has become the act of those who are hollow, desperate and defeated.

Much of 12 Years a Slave looks at the means by which people become institutionalised into slavery. The film goes to great lengths to show how hard it is to escape being a slave, with Solomon Northup being robbed of his identity and becoming little more than a portion of labour that can be bought, sold and mistreated at will. Much of the film is concerned with the brutality inflicted upon the slaves by their masters, and as in his previous work McQueen never pulls any punches.

Even by the standards of a generation raised on so-called 'torture porn', 12 Years a Slave is an incredibly brutal film. It's arguably the most violent mainstream film since The Passion of the Christ, the difference being that the violence doesn't drown out the deeper message, as it does in Mel Gibson's work. The characters are so well-written and sensitively portrayed that every violent act perpetrated against them carries great weight and brings the appropriate response of repulsion. The scene where Patsey is repeatedly whipped is one of the most flinch-inducing moments in modern cinema.

Scenes like this reflect the film's nuanced understanding of how the power relationships between masters and slaves are structured. It acknowledges that hard power in the form of whippings and rape were not enough to guarantee obedience; slaves were also institutionalised by adopting the customs of their masters. By behaving like their captors, and being rewarded for their obedience, their desire to rebel and escape is steadily eroded, much like the prisoners in The Shawshank Redemption.

This is played out in the film on at least three occasions. Firstly, we see Solomon play his violin at a dance for Mr. and Mrs. Epps: the joyful tunes he played as a free man are honed into the respectable, formal melodies of which they approve. Secondly, we see Shaw's plantations, where slaves are treated like country ladies, being plied with tea and cakes to make them accept their lot in life. And thirdly, in Patsey's whipping, where Epps invites Northup to beat his own kind, forcing him to embrace and appropriate the very form of violence that would be used against him.

The film is also very interested in the hypocrisy of religion. Christians were very prominent in the abolitionist movement later in the 19th century, and yet both Ebbs and the more moderate William Ford use scripture to justify their actions. Ford leads his slaves in services and prayers in his gardens, while Ebbs views an outbreak of cotton worm as a plague from God. Both men see slavery as their Biblically-sanctioned duty, something which in Ebbs' case extends to abusing them as well.

In lesser dramas, these characters would be painted in broad strokes as blind, deluded morons who should be ridiculed. But both McQueen's direction and John Ridley's fantastic screenplay constantly invite us to question things more deeply, and challenge our own beliefs in the process. Both Ford and Ebbs' behaviour are perversions of Christianity, neglecting Christ's teaching of compassion and forgiveness in favour of out-of-context Old Testament brutality. But we are still invited to view them as flawed men rather than dismiss them as madmen, no matter how easy that would seem.

12 Years a Slave is centrally a story of survival. It avoids falling into the trap that Schindler's List did, namely attempting to fashion a heroic story out of circumstances which didn't deserve it; in the words of Stanley Kubrick, "Schindler's List is about success. The Holocaust was about failure." Northup does very little that could be considered heroic: he doesn't liberate his fellow slaves or challenge the system to its core. He is very fortunate to survive, based upon the people he meets, and when he is swept off he is forced to leave Patsey behind.

On top of its thematic richness and brilliant storytelling, the film looks absolutely splendid Sean Bobbitt has collaborated with McQueen on both his previous films, as well as lending his eye to the underrated Byzantium. At times the plantations on which Northup works have a distinctly lyrical quality, reminiscent of the best work of Terence Malick. But as with Byzantium, there is plenty of room for harshness amongst the lavishness, and McQueen never lets the beautiful colours dominate proceedings or sanitise the violence.

The performances in 12 Years a Slave are very hard to fault. Chiwitel Ejiofor is amazing in the lead role, rivalling his performance in Dirty Pretty Things for its emotional depth and sensitivity. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o thoroughly deserved her Oscar; she makes Patsey a complex, wounded lady who never fails to break our hearts. Michael Fassbender continues his winning streak with McQueen, turning in another powerhouse performance as Ebbs, and there is good support from Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch, as John Tibeats and William Ford respectively.

12 Years A Slave is an utter masterpiece and a worthy winner of the Best Picture Oscar. It is a fantastic, mesmerising creation which is at turns a gruelling endurance test, a profound mental stimulant and a powerful emotional drama. McQueen's status as a great director of our time is assured, as is its status as an essential piece of filmmaking. It is, quite simply, astonishing, and a shoe-in for the best film of the year.
Super Reviewer
March 5, 2014
Impossibly powerful, beautiful and stunningly emotional. Film at its finest. Full review later.
Super Reviewer
September 16, 2013
Undoubtedly a sad story about the victims of slavery, however McQueen's style of directing left some scenes of prolonged silence uncomfortably boring. A slow pace drama, I'd be lying if i said it was a Masterpiece!
Super Reviewer
November 15, 2013
This one was too hard to watch but I'm glad I didn't miss it.
Super Reviewer
February 21, 2014
Brutally realistic, brutally difficult to watch, brilliantly constructed and superbly acted, '12 Years A Slave' is an incredible film. Although the subject and theme of slavery and black rights has been explored increasingly in recent years with the likes of 'Django Unchained' and 'The Help'-both excellent films, '12 Years' avoids the possibility of being a film on the subject which will fade into obscurity by breaking the boundaries of its subjects and delivering a masterpiece onto our screens.

Telling the story of Solomon Northrup, a freeborn black man in pre-civil war America, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery it is clear from the start that the film is hardly going to be an easy sit down and tune out film. I cannot recall many other films which have left me feeling physically sick after some sequences and uncomfortable to watch. Yet those sequences are essential to creating the experience of viewing the film, showing the audience just a tiny snapshot of the lives of slaves and the horrors they suffered.

Although certain brutal sequences stand out the overall feeling and tone of the film is steeped in a dark, sombre and menacing mood, created perfectly by the incredible acting abilities of Chiwetel Eijofor who, along with McQueen regular Fassbender, steals the show. There is no doubt that Eijofor deserves the Oscar for his efforts and constructing a real life character whose experiences would be hard to recreate without insulting his memory. Fassbender's tyrannical and psychotic portrayal of slave owner Epps is physically terrifying, whilst the supporting cast give fantastic performances in the vast variety of roles they perform-especially Lupita Nyong'o's devastating portrayal of Patsey which left me in anguish and sorrow as her character experiences life at the hands of Epps and his mistress.

McQueen's directing abilities have already been well established with both 'Hunger' and 'Shame', productions which have pushed the limits of independent dramas and shown that McQueen is, even after three films, one of the best British and global directors of his generation. '12 Years' pushes his dramatic boundaries further, creating the gutwrenching picture which thoroughly deserved the BAFTAs for Best Film and Best Actor for Ejifor. With a supposed HBO series in the works I look forward to more from McQueen.

To say that I enjoyed '12 Years A Slave' would be an unfitting word to the horrific experience it was to watch. Although the ending of the film is somewhat obvious and some inspiration is expected, the film follows a downbeat ending, offering little hope nor shedding any light (in keeping with Northrup's book), of the lives of Patsey and the other slaves following Northrup's departure. Inspiration is muted to say the least. Yet the purpose of '12 Years A Slave' is not to offer inspiration but to realistically explore the life of an American slave. It is tragic and hard to watch but it is a film which should and must be watched, not just for the technical and creative achievements it makes, but for the story it tells.
Super Reviewer
February 14, 2014
Very well done film, albeit a little long. Based on a true story, and chronicles the dreadful experiences of slaves during an embarrassing period in our history...particularly the experience of one kidnapped, and wrongly treated, free black man. Really graphic. Really moving...
Super Reviewer
February 10, 2014
Challenging, infuriating and poetic in equal measures. Heartfelt performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o.
Super Reviewer
December 3, 2013
The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup.

Excellent Film!!! Acting is one of the strong points here. One of the few movies, where each and every actor plays his/her part almost brilliantly. The protagonist black man played by Chiewetel Ejiofor is a revelation. Surely, the front-runner for this years Oscar Awards for best actor. Michael Fassbender as the cruel slave owner disgusts you so much, you want to kill that bastard. The passion for cruelty which he portrays is awe-inducing. The simultaneous innocence and weakness portrayed by Lupita Nyong'o as Fassbender's sex slave leaves you teary-eyed. Definitely, the break-through performance of the year. A Small role by Benedict Cumberbatch and a cameo by Brad Pitt are perfect. This was the first Steve Mcqueen movie I saw, and I am totally looking forward to complete watching his filmography. Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way that it portrays slavery itself. Instead of taking the easy way out and limiting his exploration of the topic solely to the slaves, Steve McQueen increases the scope and we see how it affects those who profited by it. To watch 12 Years a Slave is to be confronted with the grim reality of slavery in a way that's never been done before. To say this is the best film ever made about slavery feels trivial, as slavery is a subject in film that has been shown with naive romanticism from films like Gone With the Wind or silly exploitation from something like Django Unchained. Both of which serve to make the topic digestible. To watch 12 Years a Slave is to experience a level of despair and misery that can become overwhelming. It's a film of such ugliness, such blunt emotional trauma, that it may haunt you for hours if not days after seeing it. All in all, if you get a chance to see 12 Years a Slave, don't miss it. Not everyone will be able to stomach it but it's an outstanding film that deserves and needs to be seen.

Based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.
Super Reviewer
½ October 17, 2013
"12 Years a Slave" depicts the raw brutality and unimaginable conditions of America pre-emancipation in a form most vivid, however it does not rely on this violence alone. Director Steve McQueen's unforgettable portrait of American barbarianism succeeds in it's honest, two-sided telling; for a story most definitely black and white, John Ridley's screenplay finds a grey area, birthing a narrative of many layers. It's a thought provoking account that above all else concerns human irony and hypocrisy, and the misunderstandings that allow such atrocities to occur in the first place. Such timeless themes make an archaic story more than relevant today, but we also get a personal journey in that of Solomon Northup (Eijofor). Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of a lifetime in an unforgettable tale of survival. A free man sold into slavery, using his education and gifts to survive, waiting for the right moment to escape. It's a inspiring tale and a performance equally inspired.McQueen's direction is a masterclass. He allows each scene to unfold at their leisure. He doesn't shy away from the grit and highlights moment of hope and inspiration in such muted and passive ways. There are about a dozen sequences that I will never forget; above all a long take in which Solomon is left hanging from a tree only barely touching earth with his tip-toes. At a grueling length we witness him hanging on by a thread. The rest of the plantation goes about their duties; fellow slave not even acknowledging his struggle. Business as usual. It's the closest to a panic attack I have come because of a movie. Enormous praise to McQueen for pulling no punches and rubbing our collective faces in one of human history's tragedies.A film both acted and crafted to perfection (and no easy watch), "12 Years a Slave" is the best film ever made about American Slavery. That feels like an understatement.
Nikhil N.
Super Reviewer
January 28, 2014
The best movie about slavery I have ever seen. Packed with powerful performances by the whole cast, 12 Years a Slave is one of the most moving films of the year. I would like to emphasize its impact in contrast to last year's Django Unchained. While Django goes for the immediate catharsis of blowing off the heads of the slave owners, 12 Years a Slave paints a completely different picture. Here we have a man whose defeated gaze carries the impact. We as the viewer want heads to roll, but instead the frustration builds as our protagonist gets sent quietly from plantation to plantation- heartbreak to heartbreak. 12 Years absolutely crushes Django in execution because Django is explosive while 12 years lets things simmer. As a viewer I wanted to scream at the top of my lungs. I wanted Solomon to fight against the brutality. After watching 12 Years a Slave, I have never been angrier at the blunder that was American slavery. This is easily one of the best movies of the year. It is certainly the most meaningful.
Super Reviewer
½ January 23, 2014
A film that is easy to admire for its outstanding acting and great cinematography, but hard to love for its slowness and cruelty. Pretty sure its images will stick with me for a while, especially the actors' faces. The story of the protagonist's struggle for survival and the fates of people he encounters are a lot harder to digest than imagined. Sometimes the film seems to enjoy its own brutality a little too much, though. It is to get a point across but sometimes feels a bit like torture porn. That doesn't lessen the film's impact. It's most certainly memorable, incredibly well done and acted down to the smallest roles. It's a tour the force you have to experience to believe it, but it's not something you may want to revisit later again.
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