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The 2013 critically acclaimed hit 12 Years a Slave has garnered attention for its unflinching look at American slavery and for its unforgettable portrayal of Solomon Northup, the free black man who was tricked, kidnapped, and sold into slavery in 1841. Critics overwhelmingly agree that standout performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, and Lupita Nyong’o, as well as gripping, classic Hollywood direction by Steve McQueen, make this movie a masterpiece.

Brody, Richard. "Should a Film Try to Depict Slavery?" Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. The New Yorker 21 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. http://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/should-a-film-try-to-depict-slavery
Brody examines the ethics behind creating a film on slavery. He explains that in the past filmmakers have avoided historical topics as horrific as the Holocaust and enslavement so as not to trivialize the suffering of so many victims. Brody counters that it should be difficult for filmmakers to produce films on this topic and that this exact difficulty needs to be clearly translated into the film. According to Brody, director McQueen utilized appropriate moral judgement and empathy when adapting 12 Years, thus effectively portraying Solomon Northup's struggle to survive.
Dargis, Manohla. "The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. The New York Times 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/18/movies/12-years-a-slave-holds-nothing-back-in-show-of-suffering.html?_r=0
Dargis explains how director McQueen does a masterful job at balancing all of the different layers in the 12 Years narrative. McQueen creates an arresting account of Solomon Northup, "who may represent an entire subjugated people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the American past and present. Yet this is also, emphatically, the story of one individual. . . . The genius of ‘12 Years a Slave' is its insistence on banal evil, and on terror, that seeped into souls, bound bodies and reaped an enduring, terrible price."
Davis, Steve. "Film Review: 12 Years a Slave." Austin Chronicle 1 Nov. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.austinchronicle.com/calendar/film/2013-11-01/12-years-a-slave/
"Brutal yet elegant, 12 Years a Slave is a beautifully rendered punch to the gut about the most shameful chapter in American history." Though the movie itself is beautifully done and wonderfully portrayed, the subject matter is a brutal reminder of the country's not so glorious past.
Gonzalez, Ed. "12 Years a Slave." Slant Magazine 13 Sept. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/12-years-a-slave
In this rare negative review, Gonzalez condemns the film's lack of humanity: "Steve McQueen's film practically treats Solomon Northup as passive observer to a litany of horrors that exist primarily for our own education."
LaSalle, Mike. "'12 Years a Slave' Review: View of a Horror." SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle 31 Oct. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.sfgate.com/entertainment/article/12-Years-a-Slave-review-view-of-a-horror-4943304.php
LaSalle has some reservations about the film, noting that "‘12 Years a Slave' has some of the awkwardness and inauthenticity of a foreign-made film about the United States." He concedes, however, that "the ways in which this film is true are much more important than the ways it's false." He also praises Chiwetel Ejiofor's magnificent performance: "His face is the audience's locus of meaning -- the way he looks at the monsters surrounding him is the way we feel."
Lumenick, Lou. "‘12 Years a Slave' Powerful and Devastating." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. New York Post Entertainment. New York Post 17 Oct. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://nypost.com/2013/10/17/12-years-a-slave-powerful-and-devastating/
Lumeniuck describes 12 Years as an emotionally devastating and brutally powerful film, one that changes the narrative of American slavery forever: "It will be impossible to ever look at ‘Gone with the Wind' the same way after ‘12 Years a Slave.'. . . Well-meaning films like ‘Lincoln' and Lee Daniels' ‘The Butler' merely scratch the surface compared to the deep and painful truths laid bare by ‘12 Years a Slave.'"
MacInnes, Paul. "12 Years a Slave: Toronto Film Festival -- First Look Review." The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 07 Sept. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.theguardian.com/film/2013/sep/07/twelve-years-a-slave-review-toronto
"Stark, visceral and unrelenting, 12 Years a Slave is not just a great film but a necessary one. . . .12 Years a Slave is a scarifying, unblinking portrayal of life as it was for tens of thousands of people less than 200 years ago. It pulls no punches. But neither does it lecture. McQueen chooses to let all the actions and inactions convey their own message."
Morgenstern, Joe. "'Slave': Unfettered, Unprecedented Force." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. WSJ. The Wall Street Journal 17 Oct. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304410204579140152376832332
"Movie audiences have never been presented with anything quite like the intertwined beauty and savagery of ‘12 Years a Slave,' so it's anyone's guess whether they'll extend the embrace that Steve McQueen's film deserves. Such is the power of this landmark event, though, that it seems certain to transcend the movie realm and become a new reference point in contemporary culture—a defining vision of what slavery looked like, and felt like, in the U.S. before the Civil War."
O'Hehir, Andrew. "Pick of the Week: From Freedom to Slavery and Back." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. Salon.com RSS. Salon 17 Oct. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.salon.com/2013/10/17/pick_of_the_week_from_freedom_to_slavery_and_back/
O'Hehir notes that "the most direct confrontation with the crushing brutality of American slavery ever seen in mainstream cinema'' was directed by an English director and featured Irish and English actors in the lead roles. But, in any case, this was a story that needed to be told: "12 Years a Slave offers no false Hollywood catharsis along with its muted happy ending, because we're not free from the curse of slavery yet."
Persall, Steve. "Review: Haunting '12 Years a Slave' Is Powerful, Groundbreaking." Tampa Bay Times 6 Nov. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.tampabay.com/things-to-do/movies/review-haunting-12-years-a-slave-is-powerful-groundbreaking/2151179>
Persall describes 12 Years a Slave as doing what other films about slavery have not: it shows the realities and harshness of the American history and provides a realistic portrayal of the brutal nature of slavery.
Puig, Claudia. "'12 Years a Slave' Paints Haunting Portrait of Endurance." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. USA Today. Gannett, 2013. Web. 07 Mar. 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/life/movies/2013/10/17/12-years-a-slave-review/2871005/
"Set mostly in the pre-Civil War south, director Steve McQueen has fashioned a deeply evocative, and brilliantly acted drama that graphically and poetically depicts the wide-ranging evils of slavery. . . . McQueen's juxtaposition of intensely savage scenes with lush natural beauty, interlaced with ambient sound, is a disturbingly vivid filmmaking choice."
Stevens, Dana. "12 Years a Slave Is an Overpowering Portrait of the Horrors of Our History." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. Slate. Slate Magazine 17 Oct. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/movies/2013/10/_12_years_a_slave_directed_by_steve_mcqueen_reviewed.html
Stevens praises the feats of acting, cinematography, historical research, and set and costume design in the film but notes that all these features combine to "overwhelm the viewer," the main flaw in a "generally stunning movie."
Travers, Peter. "12 Years a Slave." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. Rolling Stone Magazine 17 Oct. 2013. Web. Feb. 2016. http://www.rollingstone.com/movies/reviews/12-years-a-slave-20131017
"Proving himself a world-class director, McQueen basically makes slaves of us all. It hurts to watch it. You won't be able to tuck this powder keg in the corner of your mind and forget it. What we have here is a blistering, brilliant, straight-up classic."
Wloszczyna, Susan. "12 Years a Slave Movie Review (2013) | Roger Ebert." N.p., 18 Oct. 2013. Web. http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/12-years-a-slave-2013
Wloszczyna rates this film 3.5 out of 4 stars. She describes 12 Years a Slave as presenting history in a personal and immediate way that the audience has never witnessed before: the horrors of slavery are presented like "a punch to the gut." The performances of Eijofor, Fassbender, and Nyong'o are praised, although Wloszczyna criticizes Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt's performances. She notes, however, that the audience will be too stunned and overwhelmed to care about these missteps.

See Also

Burr, Ty. "‘12 Years a Slave' shows a free man taken into bondage." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. Boston Globe 24 Oct. 2013. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. https://www.bostonglobe.com/arts/movies/2013/10/24/years-slave-shows-free-man-taken-into-bondage/A2PWzIL4hfdWziCfIVn5QN/story.html

Collin, Robbie. "This, at last, really is history written with lightning." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. The Telegraph 9 Jan. 2014. Web. 21 Apr. 2016. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/film/filmreviews/10293267/12-Years-A-Slave-review-This-at-last-really-is-history-written-with-lightning.html

Corliss, Richard. "12 Years a Slave and Mandela: Two Tales of Racism Survived." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. Time. 9 September 2013. Web. 14 Apr. 2016. http://entertainment.time.com/2013/09/09/12-years-a-slave-and-mandela-two-tales-of-racism-survived/

Hornaday, Ann. "‘12 Years a Slave' movie review: A masterpiece of form, content, emotion and performance." Washington Post 17 Oct. 2013. Web. 15 Apr. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/12-years-a-slave-movie-review-a-masterpiece-of-form-content-emotion-and-performance/2013/10/16/1b158e76-34e8-11e3-8a0e-4e2cf80831fc_story.html

Mondello, Bob. "For a free spirit, a grim '12 Years' in chains." Rev. of 12 Years a Slave, dir. Steve McQueen. All Things Considered NPR, 18 Oct. 2013. Web. 20 Apr. 2016. http://www.npr.org/2013/10/18/235486193/for-a-free-spirit-a-grim-12-years-in-chains