12 Years a Slave Movie Poster Image

12 Years a Slave

Imperfect but must-see epic drama with major cruelty.
Popular with kidsParents recommend
  • Rated: R
  • Genre: Drama
  • Release Year: 2013
  • Running Time: 134 minutes

What parents need to know

Positive messages

No one can take away your dignity or your identity, no matter how hard they try.

Positive role models

Solomon Northup is steadfast: He will not let anyone rob him of his humanity and his central identity. Through decades of strife, he maintains a modicum of hope to fight against his despair. A few other characters display kindness in cruel times, specifically the Canadian abolitionist, Bass.


Characters are strung up on a tree and hanged; in one prolonged scene, one man struggles mightily not to be choked, and it's tough to watch him. Men and women are beaten, sometimes with whips, and publicly, too. The "N" word is hurled left and right; a master forces himself on a slave. Two men engage in a fistfight; another man is stabbed, his body hurled overboard a ship. One close-up shows the bloody aftermath of a horrible, extended lashing.


A woman grabs a man's hand and touches herself with it; it's more sad than sexy. Another scene shows men and women completely naked while "buyers" look them over. A master ogles his female slave.


"Whore" and the "N" word.

Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Some wine-drinking at dinner; later one of the men at the table is shown throwing up, as if he has drunk too much.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing, moving drama based on a book written in the 1850s by Solomon Northup recounting his experiences as a slave, and it can be difficult to watch. There are scenes that show extreme brutality (beatings, hangings) and rough language (the use of the "N" word), and extreme emotional cruelty. Expect some slave market nudity, plus the sexual assault of a slave by a master. Very young teens and tweens may find it too intense, but older teens should watch it to bear witness to a tragic part of American history.

What's the story?

An accomplished violinist and free man living in the state of New York, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) agrees in 1841 to tour with two gentlemen and perform while his family is away visiting relatives. Sadly, they were no gentlemen and there was no tour. Instead, they kidnap him, sneak him to the South and sell him as a slave. No matter how many times Northup says he's a free man, no one believes him, least of which the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who insists on naming him "Platt." His first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), means well, but is scared off by neighbors who won't let him be kind to his workers. Northup's second master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is a forbidding, troubled taskmaster who preys on a female slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who then becomes the subject of cruelty at the hands of Epps' embittered wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson). Will Northup ever be free? Will the man from Canada named Bass (Brad Pitt) help or betray him? And how will he survive, both spirit and mind intact?

Is it any good?


Inspired by real-life events, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is punishing and demoralizing to watch, so committed is director Steve McQueen to tell this story unwaveringly. You will leave the theater reminded of the wretched brutality that men and women have been, and still are, capable of, and it will leave you untethered. But a must-see it is. McQueen, for the most part, exerts restraint where a lesser director may have belabored the endeavor with overstuffed frames, waves of music, and speechifying, most of which he avoids here. Casting Ejiofor was a stroke of brilliance. He is magnetic, embodying the character so fully we believe in his resolve not to founder, and suffer when he does. Fassbender is Ejiofor's counterpart as the frightening Epps, and he's just as watchable, if not as sublime. His rendering is a little less nuanced, but compelling nonetheless.

12 Years a Slave goes slack as it marches toward the end, sputtering when it should crescendo. The ending, truthful as it may be, feels anti-climactic and rushed, more intellectually satisfying than emotionally fulfilling. But weeks after, the film will still sit with you, its impact weighty.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about Northup's story: Have you heard of it before? If not, why not?

  • How is this movie different from, or similar to, others that explore the subject of racism and the history of slavery in this country?

  • Do you think the amount of violence in this movie helps viewers get a realistic understanding of the experience of slavery? Or is it gratuitous? Does the fact that the violence is in a historical context make it more (or less) tolerable?

Movie details

Theatrical release date:October 18, 2013
DVD/Streaming release date:March 4, 2014
Cast:Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson
Director:Steve McQueen
Studio:Fox Searchlight
Run time:134 minutes
MPAA rating:R
MPAA explanation:violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality

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What parents and kids say

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Teen, 13 years old Written bydoubleE November 3, 2013

12 Years a Slave is a Phenomenal and Brutal Film

My mom and I went to see this together. She was not sure wether to take me or not since it's R but the reason she wanted to take me was for the story and educational purpose. After the movie was over she was very glad she took me and I was glad I went. I am very mature for my age and was able to handle this movie but for most young teens and adults and myself, it's very brutal, disturbing and hard to handle. There is countless sayings of the "N" word, a brief rape scene that does not show anything graphic but it's heart breaking, full back and frontal nudity of both men and women (in the beggining of the movie). The sexual content of this movie, I was able to handle but was nothing compared to the violent cruelty. Many whipping scenes showing the graphic bloody aftermath, beatings and torture play a big role in this movie with characters treating slaves like dirt. Overall this movie is fantastic and powerful and eventually everyone should see this depending on their maturity but it's very hard to handle and a very heavy movie. The last 15 minutes of the movie are extremely emotional and no one could get out of their seats for 10 minutes after it was over. 12 Years a Slave WILL and MUST win best picture and not to be missed at some point.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing
Teen, 17 years old Written bySean Broucek October 24, 2013

Poignant drama is not for squeamish moviegoers.

Parents, this emotionally gripping true story from the director of "Shame" is a must-see, with it's extraordinary performances and beautifully written dialogue, but the mature themes about slavery and nonsexual nudity is a better fit for teens. Violence includes an very brief rape scene, torture, and cruelty to humans, with some disturbing images. Sex includes slaves completely nude (breasts and buttocks shown), and a rape scene, that is very brief and ungraphic. Language includes "whore" and pervasive use of the "N" word. Check out this one. It is great. SUGGESTED MPAA RATING: Rated PG-13 For Mature Emotional Thematic Material, Violent Cruelty, Nudity, And Some Brief Sexual References
Adult Written byFilmFanatic October 20, 2013

Touching movie, but intense

Fantastic movie but has some really intense scenes/themes that may not be suitable for younger teens. Positive Role Model/Message- Solomon proves to be great role model and brings a great message to the movie. He presses on even through hard and seemingly unbearable times in the hopes of seeing his family again. Bass's views on slavery and the differences between white and black people also makes him a worthy role model. Violence- Very brutal beating/whipping scenes with harsh results. The viewer usually doesn't see the wound being directly inflicted, as the camera angle is opposite of the actual contact. You can. however see the gory after affects, whipping sounds, pained faces and even blood spray from the more savage hits. A woman slave asks another slave to end her life because she is suffering so much at the hands of her master. A man is hung by the neck on his toes for an extended scene before his is cut down. (He is okay.) In a scene, a few slaves are hung and we see their bodies convulse briefly. The violence is intense and realistic. Sex/Nudity- There are two sex scenes. One consensual and lasts about 20-30 seconds and another of the same length that borderlines on rape (She doesn't fight back but it is implied she doesn't have much of a choice in the matter.) None of these scenes have nudity. There are a few scenes of nudity, but they are non-sexual. Slaves are washing up and bare butts and breasts can be scene. In a slave market, the slaves are sold nude so that their potential buyers can inspect them. Again, butts and breasts can be seen. Language- Frequent uses of mild to moderate language such as the N word and one use of b*tch. The N word is used very frequently in a negative manner.
What other families should know
Great messages
Great role models
Too much violence
Too much sex
Too much swearing