If you want a comfortable entertaining experience don't go to this film. But if you want to see a landmark film that may well clean up at the Oscars then this film is not to be missed. The film draws on the memoirs of Solomon Northup, a freeborn black American family man from New York who was kidnapped from Washington D. C., sold into slavery, shipped to the South and sold to the owner of a Louisiana plantation in 1841, where he was held captive for 12 years before regaining his freedom.
Like the title portends the film provides a visual display of what life was like for African American slaves through the eyes of Soloman Northup, played by Chiwetel Eijofor. Steve McQueen, the director is not interested in the viewer being comfortable nor does he use violence (action) as entertainment. Some cinema verite techniques of long pauses on peoples emotions together with some shaky blurred camera shots set the stage for the director's intention; that of watchful observation. We the audience are joined at the hip with Soloman in watchful observation of the horror that is America's history of slavery. Soloman's responses to the brutality of his life as a captured slave are credible; part survival-based submission with the occasional breakouts of angry resistance. It is the latter which draws some of the most brutal responses on the part of the white masters in this film. Any behavior other than mute servitude is dealt with harshly; but this may come as no surprise to those who know their American history.
What may come as a surprise in this film is the director's portrayal of the intense close relationship of the plantation owner and slaves. The slave huts are close by to the large plantation home like dog kennels and the owner's treatment of slaves like dogs to use, pet and mistreat. The psychologically warped relationship between men who are made owners of other humans is on full display.
This is a confronting film yet one which deserves the accolades it is likely to receive this year. The acting, directing and cinema photography are standouts.