Telluride 2013: '12 Years a Slave' is a Profound Cinematic Achievement

August 31, 2013

12 Years a Slave

Now there are two iconic Steve McQueens in Hollywood history. The actor, and the director. The latest film from Steve McQueen, the director of Hunger and Shame, titled 12 Years a Slave just premiered at the Telluride Film Festival and it is a profound cinematic achievement on every level. A phenomenal work that, while incredibly heavy to watch and brutally honest in its depiction of slavery, is filmmaking at its finest. More than anything, this film is one of the finest accomplishments for actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, who (I must say) deserves to finally take home the Oscar for this after so many years of fine performances. What a film.

Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, written by John Ridley, follows the story of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Over the course of twelve years, he is sold to different masters and attempts to contact his wife and children back home in order for them to forward his papers confirming he is a free man. The struggles that this educated, well-intentioned, good-hearted man goes through are some of the most painful put on screen. This may be one of the most accurate and brutal films about slavery ever made. It never holds back, as if McQueen wants the audience to feel responsible for all that's happening and feel the pain and guilt in order to understand.

There are scenes, master shots, where watching the camera linger on Ejiofor's face will bring tears to your eyes. The incredible depth and the earnestness behind this man, and all that he has to endure, is enough to make a grown man cry. McQueen is a master of the lingering shot, focusing the camera intently on the faces, on raw scenes of slavery brutality, and letting the audiences sit (occasionally uncomfortably) soaking up the images on screen. It's very brave filmmaking, the kind that pushes the audience to understand and accept what they're seeing even if it's despicable or just disgusting. This film is extraordinary in the way everyone involved, from the actors to producers to the crew, committed themselves to making something so powerful.

The cast in 12 Years a Slave deserves endless accolades for their extremely brave and fierce performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I have admired for years (I first interviewed him back in 2008) gives one of the finest performances of his career, one that will be remembered for many years to come. His face alone, without any dialogue, speaks so much. On the opposite side, Michael Fassbender as one of the vile plantation owners is as evil as they come, and he completely embodies his performance, acting almost reptilian. Other stand outs include Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as the slave Patsey.

I can't praise this film enough, and even though it is a very heavy, very challenging film to sit through, it's worth it. Worth it to experience this incredible cinematic creation that is not only a remarkable piece of art but also an important history lesson. It's a film where emotions are both encouraged and stifled, where the performances will leave you in awe, where you'll be left trembling at the end. From Hans Zimmer's beautiful score, to cinematographer Sean Bobbitt's shots, to McQueen's direction and all of the performances within, this film is a grand achievement and should not be missed by anyone. Even if it's challenging to sit through.

Alex's Telluride Rating: 9.8 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing

Find more posts: Review, Telluride 13



Finally, real cinema is back. Cannot wait to see it!

Buzzfunk on Aug 31, 2013


It never left.

Bob on Sep 1, 2013

3 matter how tough it will be to watch...MUST BE WATCHED

Have Hope on Aug 31, 2013



Steve on Aug 31, 2013


Am so happy that we're finally getting something truthful about slavery. No django, no comedy, no white savior.

Steve on Aug 31, 2013


Finally something to satisfy your White Guilt!!!

Guest on Sep 1, 2013


can not wait !! finally a honest film about this period, thanks to Macqueen,and all the great cast!

sandra on Aug 31, 2013


Because you were there of course

Guest on Sep 1, 2013


instruct yourself

sandra on Sep 1, 2013


So glad to hear that it is great, not that I had any doubts but it's nice to know going in. Can't wait, the trailer alone was powerful.

IamSlave on Aug 31, 2013


Alex, did you get a chance to see Prisoners?

axalon on Aug 31, 2013


Not yet - seeing it tomorrow afternoon.

Alex Billington on Aug 31, 2013


You must report immediately!

axalon on Sep 1, 2013


Just saw it. Damn that was good, really really good. Chilling.

Alex Billington on Sep 1, 2013


Looking forward to the review

axalon on Sep 1, 2013


sounds great. Well written review too. But why a 9.8? Is there really a noticeable difference between a 9.8 and a 10?

mrcrtnd on Aug 31, 2013


A 9.8 leaves room for something else to be better. In this case, it looks like Gravity got the 10.

Elle on Sep 8, 2013


I want to see this one. I knew it would be good and I am so glad Alex's review provides vindication. Thank AB.

DAVIDPD on Sep 1, 2013


I have only seen Ejiofor in Serenity, but he blew me away and became one of the most imposing onscreen villians I have seen. I can't wait to see him in this performance.

grimjob on Sep 1, 2013


SLAVERY....SLAVERY....SLAVERY What can i say? Bigest problem of humanity? I mean not only black skin guys slavery but also slavery of MIND , SOUL , HEART. WHAT CAN I SAY? Chiwetel Ejiofor for me is great as Denzel Washington as or as Forest Whitaker as too. I love this actors and live with them. They are my Contemporary treasures. No Doubt. But for me about a movie about slavery "SCREENPLAY" is most important part. And i want from my heart that this screenplay fascinate me.

Ehsan Davodi on Sep 3, 2013


Can't wait to see this. I'm especially looking forward to Fassbender's performance, since I particularly loved his Hunger and Shame with McQueen.

Rabblerouser on Sep 3, 2013


I'm excited about this.

SomeBraveApollo on Sep 10, 2013

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