Steve McQueen's slavery epic 12 Years a Slave - reviews

Jan 7, 2014

Shame director McQueen has made the 'seminal' slavery film – part art house, part history, part horror story

What you need to know

Historical epic 12 Years a Slave, which opens in UK cinemas this week, has been dubbed "the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery". From British director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) it is based on an 1853 autobiography of the same name.

It tells the story of Soloman Northup, a musician and free man who was kidnapped in Washington DC in 1841 and sold into slavery. He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for 12 years, suffering terrible abuse before he was able to prove his identity.

Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Children of Men) stars as Soloman. With Michael Fassbender as a cruel slave owner, and Brad Pitt as Canadian labourer, Bass, opposed to slavery.

What the critics like

Between art house and prestige period flick, "12 Years A Slave is history lesson as horror film – powerful, visceral and affecting", says Ian Freer in Empire. After years of being great in everything, Ejiofor shines in a lead worthy of his immense talent.

With this powerful, almost classical drama, McQueen has made "the seminal film about slavery" anchored by a wrenching, intelligent performance by Ejiofor, says Kate Muir in The Times. Without being sentimental, they have created a film of real weight and worth.

"12 Years a Slave is easily the greatest feature film ever made about American slavery," says David Denby in the New Yorker. With scenes of unforgettable sober beauty it leaves us grieving for the thousands who never knew freedom and who were never able to tell their stories.

What they don't like

It's a shame that such injustice was allowed to exist for so long and "an even bigger disgrace that it takes a British director to stare the issue in its face", says Peter Debruge in Variety. It's an important teaching tool about slavery, though arguably too harsh for young eyes.

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While good to show yet another way that slavery was degrading to everyone this film falls short. The cinematography was pretty but unvaried and unrelated to telling the story.

The story of Soloman Northup is far more than his 12 years of slavery and the film does fall short, chronicling an array of daily physical torture with assiduous attention to every sadistic detail, yet ignoring the subject's subsequent life's work in campaigning to end slavery, and help many, many others. The rest of his life was a footnote in the credits. Real shame.

It may have made a better television series, in that regard. I only watched it yesterday, and although I found it to be very good in many ways, I didn't once notice the passing of 12 years, it just so happened to be the case upon his return home. Yes I would have also liked to see more of Solomon Northup's story.