Critical Mass: Is '12 Years a Slave' as great as the buzz?

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Image Credit: Francois Duhamel

Every year’s fall-festival season yields an Oscar front-runner or two, but from the moment that 12 Years a Slave premiered at September’s Telluride Film Festival, the industry has swooned, crowning director Steve McQueen’s epic tale of American slavery as something more than just the film to beat. Think about those wonderful Oscar montages that piece together the greatest moments of our greatest movies of the last 100 years — Cary Grant eluding a biplane in a cornfield, Sundance telling Butch he can’t swim, Henry Fonda telling the Joads he’ll be there. It’s not difficult to imagine the face of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as part of that Oscar tribute 10, 20, or 30 years from now. 12 Years is that kind of cinematic experience.

Solomon Northup was a real person, a free New York musician with a wife and children, who was drugged, chained, and sold into Southern slavery in 1841. That his ordeal is little-known, and that Hollywood has flinched from depicting American slavery in all its evils, is unfortunate but notable, and McQueen’s eye is unsparing as he depicts the corrosive impact of slavery on all that it touches. Solomon’s odyssey south is one humiliating and brutal encounter after another, culminating in his sale to a sadistic plantation owner played by Michael Fassbender.

That’s not to say that 12 Years is something that needs to be endured by audiences. As EW’s Owen Geliberman writes, “It’s a film of such emotion that in telling the story of a life that gets taken away, it lets us touch what life is.”

With 12 Years a Slave expanding to more cities this weekend, click below to see what other critics are saying about McQueen’s Oscar hopeful.

Owen Gleiberman (Entertainment Weekly) ★
“Gazing at his chains as if he were in a bad dream he simply has to wake up from, the brilliant Chiwetel Ejiofor places us right inside Solomon’s skin, and instantly we’re sharing the horror this man’s life has become. Ejiofor may have the most eloquent eyes of any actor now working. They are orbs of pure expression, and in this movie they need to be because Solomon can rarely speak what he’s feeling.”

Manohla Dargis (New York Times)
12 Years a Slave isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.”

Ann Hornaday (Washington Post) ★
“Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, 12 Years a Slave in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine — if not cauterize — America’s primal wound.”

Steven Rea (Philadelphia Inquirer) ★
“…it’s just darn good storytelling, a picture made with impeccable artistry and intelligence, and with actors — Chiwetel Ejiofor foremost among them — who bring these heroes and villains, innocents and malefactors, to life, wholly, and sometimes horrifically.”

Richard Roeper (Chicago Sun-Times) ★
“This is no Gone With the Wind fairy tale or Django Unchained revenge fantasy. We see the Southern plantations as what they really were — slave labor prison camps.”

Ty Burr (Boston Globe) ★
12 Years a Slave makes [Django Unchained] look like the work of a posturing brat — may even make you ashamed of having enjoyed Django. The issue here isn’t white guilt (a cheap enough commodity) but the act of fully confronting the specifics of what we as a nation did to a people we brought here by force.”

Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times) ★
“A notorious and psychotic slave breaker, Epps, superbly acted by the fearless Fassbender, is the absolute ruler of a disturbing alternate universe of his own devising, one characterized by his alternating passion for and disgust with the slave Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), his sexual chattel as well as the best field hand on his plantation.”

David Denby (The New Yorker) ★
“McQueen spares us nothing of the horror of human dignity betrayed by base everyday cruelty. If there’s a weakness in these scenes, it’s a reliance on the mesmerizing Fassbender. Epps is so far gone into psychosis that there’s nothing Fassbender can do but repeat his outbursts with greater hysteria.”

Chris Willman (IndieWire) ★
“‘Long-suffering’ isn’t easy to play with layers, either, but Nyong’o — as Epp’s slave mistress, who actually manages to get privileges taken away, not added, for her sexual services — is a heartbreaker in every way. She’d steal the movie if it weren’t for Ejiofor’s performance…”

Richard Corliss (TIME) ★
“…McQueen is not a schlockmeister sensationalist but a remorseless artist. The scenes of black flesh peddled by venal salesmen do not excite; they repel. And repellent is the word for the slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who encourages potential customers to prod the merchandise and check their teeth like horses.”

David Edelstein (New York)
“From a political and humanist standpoint, there are plenty of reasons to champion 12 Years a Slavebut McQueen’s directorial voice — cold, stark, deterministic — keeps it from attaining the kind of grace that marks the voice of a true film artist.”

12 Years a Slave
Overall Metacritic rating (1-100): 96
Rotten Tomatoes: 96 percent

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