Posted January 12, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Best of 2013

12 Years a Slave: Best Film of 2013

12 Years a Slave is a horrifying, realistic look at American slavery.  The film is grueling in its depiction of the hell that black Americans lived under for several hundred years, and it is the best film by far of 2013.

It is far more than a study in brutality. What makes 12 Years stand out is its emotional and psychological complexity. This film contains a deeper examination of the diseased psycho-social dynamics of master-slave society than I believe we’ve ever had in the cinema.

With this film, English director Steve McQueen establishes himself as one of the top filmmakers in the world. It’s hard to believe that this is only his third full-length film, after Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011).

12 Years is so good that I expect it to earn a boat-load of Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), Best Editing (Joe Walker), Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulson), and Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender).

Based on a memoir published in 1853, the film chronicles the life of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York. While on a temporary job in Washington, Northup gets kidnapped, shipped to the Deep South, and sold to a plantation owner.

English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (a traditional Nigerian name pronounced CHEW-it-ul EDGE-ee-uh-for) gives a stunning performance as Solomon. It would be a travesty if he is not nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

Solomon’s first owner (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) is relatively humane (as slaveowners go), and Solomon wins favor with him by exhibiting an engineer’s skill on the plantation. But this achievement causes Solomon to run afoul of the insecure overseer (played by Paul Dano), who has much less education than Solomon.

The overseer, a white ape with a whip, taunts Solomon to the point where Solomon strikes back, putting him on a path to lynching. Solomon narrowly escapes lynching by being sold to another plantation, this one led by two psychopaths (played frighteningly well by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson).

The overseer (Dano) exhibits what can only be described as jealousy of Northup. The overseer senses Northup’s intelligence and education and responds with brutality. Northup is a magnet for the jealousies of uneducated whites.

This type of psycho-social dynamic plays out with even more force when the second slaveowner’s wife (Paulson) grows incensed when a female slave named Patsy (played exquisitely by the Kenyan-American actress Lupita Nyong’o) shows her skill — and beauty.

The character of the slaveowner’s wife is not typically developed well in projects like this. It is cause for celebration that the 12 Years script digs fairly deeply into Paulson’s character.

She is subordinate to her husband, but that doesn’t mean powerless. Here the slaveowner’s wife emerges as a co-owner and a fearsome source of evil on the plantation. This woman’s heart is as intricately diseased as her husband’s.

Last year, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln offered a similarly deep look at a 19th-century white woman: Mary Todd Lincoln (in a bravura, Oscar-nominated performance by Sally Field). Now we have yet another interesting take on a white woman from the same era. It’s a rare pleasure to see 19th-century women explored in cinema in a meaningful way, in all their depth and complexity. Subordinate to white men, yes. Powerless, no.

Intricately involved in the maintenance of white supremacism? Yes. With hearts sometimes as dark as the most evil white man? Yes. With the ability to make their evil felt in the world around them? Oh, yes.

Kudos to Sarah Paulson for having the guts to explore this woman’s poisoned soul in such a trenchant way. Kudos to screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen for giving her the opportunity.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.