12 Years a Slave has been receiving a lot of critical acclaim and it’s been billed as a great film, perhaps one of the greatest ever (although the hype on movie posters has to be taken with a grain of salt). It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free man who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film follows his journey and it’s based on the actual events of this man’s life. It’s a very important story and what Solomon Northup went through was horrific and awful and its a stain on humanity that these things were allowed to happen, but I have to disagree with the majority of critics because I didn’t find this film very good at all.
Did you know slavery was bad? Because if you didn’t then don’t worry, 12 Years a Slave carves it on a sledgehammer and whacks you with that message for two hours. It’s not nuanced or subtle at all and that message overwhelms the story so much that it failed to engage me, and I hate that because it feels like I’m criticising Solomon’s life, because this movie was taken from the pages of his book. I don’t want to do that at all because it’s important that that book was written and that this story is told, hopefully things like this will never happen again, but I think this is a film that will people will say they like because they feel like they should like it.
The film begins with some footage of when Solomon settles down to write a letter and he also has sex with another slave, who promptly turns over and sobs. Then the scene transitions to the past where we see his family leave on a trip. This transition seemed very odd since the footage shown in the future was repeated exactly later on in the film, but it wasn’t a particularly important or emphatic moment and I don’t think the foreshadowing was necessary. It was an odd creative choice.
The rest of the film follows Solomon as he’s traded between owners and has to try to survive in a world that’s against him. The film is brutal at showing how his humanity is torn away, and early on there’s a contrast drawn between living and surviving. Solomon has to choose between the two and Ejiofor portrays the conflict well. There’s a burning rage that he has to suppress and as he’s the only constant in the film it relies heavily on his shoulders. Thankfully they were capable of carrying the weight. It’s a raw, harrowing performance and while the film isn’t great his performance deserves every bit of praise it gets. The rest of the cast were okay, I think perhaps Paul Dano had the biggest impact, although Michael Fassbender’s was more important to the overall story.
The make-up and effects departments deserve a lot of praise as well. The film doesn’t shy away from showing the abhorrent treatment dished out to the slaves. Each crack of the whip is felt as blood sprays over the screen and in the aftermath we see the convincing welts and sores that have been opened up. The cinematography is also stunning in that the director creates some absolutely gorgeous imagines of the landscape and the beauty of these images is juxtaposed with the ugliness of human nature. Despite this the film is overly dramatic and it never presents the story as its own thing, rather it bludgeons us with the message that slavery is bad over and over again. A great deal of the dialogue feels stilted and unnatural but I’m not sure if it’s due to the script or some of the actors used.
I think it’s important that this story was told and it’s good that this film was made, but just because it deals with this type of subject matter it doesn’t automatically make it a great film. It’s held together by a superb performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor but the movie itself feels over-produced and preachy. I found there were more than a few times where I wished I could fast-forward the film. It’s not a bad film and there are some really good elements to it but it failed to engage me so I’m going to be in the minority on this one and say that it’s nowhere near as good as the hype suggests.