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12 Years a Slave

Wael Khairy reviews Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, a gut-wrenchingly graphic depiction of the horrors of slavery in America during the 1800s, but finds light at the end of the tunnel...

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup published in 1853. It is said the film is so powerful that when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, many critics walked out before the credits rolled, unable to stomach the brutality portrayed on screen. Nevertheless, when it did end, absolute silence turned into an eruption of applause as the audience stood up, giving the film a much-deserved standing ovation. It has since swept the awards season paving its way to Oscar glory.

This is the real Django Unchained; it does to slavery what Schindler’s List did to the holocaust, relentlessly transporting viewers to one of the darkest chapters of human history. Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers a powerhouse performance as the free man abducted from the North and sold into slavery in the South. He commands the screen with absolute supremacy. As with most films that feature a strong leading performance, his strong presence has a ripple effect on the other actors. The other performances that stand out are Lupita Nyong’s moving turn as Patsy, the most unfortunate of slaves, and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, the heartless slave owner.

This is as much a history lesson as it is an elevated cinematic achievement. Hans Zimmer’s touching score blends in seamlessly with the high-profile cinematography of Sean Bobbitt. Bobbitt’s prosperous partnership with McQueen has worked miracles for both talents. If you’re familiar with McQueen’s previous films, you’ll know that this will be a hard to watch film. Hunger and Shame pack enough gut-wrenching scenes to make any viewer uncomfortable. This epic tale is no exception.

The viewer is subjected to lashings, hangings, and rape. But the scenes that really stand out are the heartfelt ones that show a glimpse of hope for our main character. I don’t know why, but scenes where I see the genuine goodness in humanity have always moved me much deeper than scenes that were meant to be sad. 

We are constantly told that we live in a brutal sad world, but where there is evil, there is good. Foul beings walk amongst common folk, but every once in a while you bump into an angelic person who restores hope in humanity. I stumble upon this film with restored faith that everyone who sees it will be good. Let it be strong reminder that cruelty still exists in this world, and that good always prevails.