A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What 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.
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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.
Talk to your kids 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?
- In theaters: October 18, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: March 4, 2014
- Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson
- Director: Steve McQueen
- Studio: Fox Searchlight
- Genre: Drama
- Topics: History
- Run time: 134 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
- Last updated: September 20, 2019
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