There are lots of great movies that aren’t very fun to watch. Nobody watches Schindler’s List or Requiem for a Dream and says, “That was fun!” Dark or depressing movies can serve a very important purpose, though, as they can make for the most powerful films. 12 Years a Slave is one of the most powerful of the year.
Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave tells the tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man who, in 1841, was abducted and sold into slavery in the Deep South. Northup endured horrific abuse for a dozen years before he regained his freedom, eventually writing the memoir from which the movie’s adapted.
Important movies have been made about slavery, like Glory, Amistad, and the miniseries Roots. 12 Years a Slave is more powerful than any of them, largely because it personalizes the incomprehensible atrocities of slavery. By beginning with Northup’s freedom, his slavery feels all the more restrictive, driving home realities that are often glossed over in movies because of their brutality.
Director Steve McQueen very effectively puts you right next to Northup during his unwavering, twelve-year quest for freedom, forcing you to see the life of a slave and daring you not to look away.
The reliable Ejiofor gives the best performance of his career as Northup. It’s riveting, it’s heartbreaking, and it’s shaping up to be the odds-on favourite for winning Best Actor at next year’s Oscars. This is acting of the highest calibre and the movie would be worth seeing just for him.
In addition to the fantastic Ejiofor, though, the movie also boasts an impressive cast of supporting actors including Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, and Paul Dano. Every one of them brings their A-game to the movie, filling every scene with impressive acting.
12 Years a Slave is not an enjoyable movie. By no means should it be, because the subject matter isn’t really something in which to find fun, but it’s worth noting before heading to the theatre that this is a very dramatic drama. It has a hopeless tone for much of it and the weight of the movie can be crushing at times. Truth be told, though, that’s partly what makes the movie so great.