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Review: ’12 Years a Slave’ interesting in exploration of sociology, otherwise one-dimensional

Lupita Nyong'o stars as Patsey in '12 Years a Slave,' which is scheduled to be released nationwide Nov. 1. Credit: Courtesy of MCT

Lupita Nyong’o stars as Patsey in ’12 Years a Slave,’ which is scheduled to be released nationwide Nov. 1.
Credit: Courtesy of MCT

“12 Years a Slave” opens in Columbus Friday, after spending about two months picking up awards and overwhelming praise from the film festival circuit.

The film has been the subject of high praise, with a number of critics labeling it as the benchmark for films about slavery.

The movie is a dramatization of the life of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free-born black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

It is British director Steve McQueen’s third feature film and is hotly touted as an early Oscar contender.

That hype complements the film’s high ambitions — McQueen said the movie aims to do more than just tell Northup’s story.

“It’s a world story because it has to do with slavery and slavery was a world industry,” McQueen said at a press conference at the London Film Festival.

But if its aim is to encompass the institution, the movie uses its 134-minute canvas poorly. Slavery is approached like a fairy-tale horror of good versus evil. It’s insular, and falls short of adequately exploring the sociology of how otherwise civilized people could rationalize such a barbaric institution.

Like “Schindler’s List,” “12 Years a Slave” is more interested in using violence to remind its audience of past horrors than exploring those horrors in a meaningful way.

The film is most interesting when it shows more nuanced characterizations of slavery’s sociology: slavemasters who treat slaves like co-workers and slaves with Stockholm syndrome who defend their masters.

But as soon as the movie comes close to examining that complexity, it quickly runs back to the isolated caricatures of a saintly Northup and his evil masters.

Most of the characters are fairly one-dimensional: sadistic slavemasters, compassionate slavemasters and scared and subservient slaves. Their psychology, however, is left almost wholly untapped except when necessary to advance Northup’s story.

The telling of Northup’s story is by far the film’s strong suit. Like any great movie, the action feels real; the careful pacing and isolation provide a tense feeling of helplessness. The fantastic acting and dialogue (albeit a little theatrical) make any confrontation between Northup and his slavemasters even more emotionally gripping.

If only taking into account the form, the movie is great, but it falters when its thin content fails to live up to its ambitions of being the definitive movie about slavery.

“12 Years a Slave” is set to open nationwide Friday.

Grade: B


  1. I strongly disagree with this review. This is the only film about slavery that shows a black man who has agency. It shows a character in Northup who was able to choose what to do his whole life and then was suddenly thrown into a world where he had no choice.

    The complexities of character are actually quite deep as the enslaved characters debate how best to deal with their status. This is summed up in Northup’s line, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

    Does the author want Northup’s foibles to be exposed in the film, minimizing the great evil of slavery? Does the author not realize the complexity of the character of Epps’ wife who is held captive by the same master as Northup is? Does the author not recognize the complexity of Misstress Shaw who is a first among equals and is brilliantly portrayed by Alfre Woodard?

  2. Dude, you go to a university with a sociology department that ranks in the top 20 of US sociology departments. go learn how to use the word sociology in a sentence.

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