In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.

An important subject that educates its audience more than it engages emotionally. If it wasn’t for the violence in the story it would be quite flat. Northrup is portrayed as essentially standing back and observing the events happening around him. The Wikipedia article on Northrup mentions that he made a number of attempts at escaping. We only really see one subtly hinted at in the movie. It is as though the director has allowed his camera to just linger on the moments when abuse is occurring giving us time to empathise with the horror – but for the rest of the movie there’s a rather rigid and repetitive telling of the manner in which slaves lived and worked. I get the feeling that there must have been a lot more depth to Northup, particularly after the movie finishes with some brief facts about what he did following his freedom from slavery. I would have liked to have seen the movie shortened by about 30 minutes with some of this other history being explored.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is excellent as Northup with a lot of this pain being expressed as the camera moves closeup to his face. For me, one of the most compelling scenes occurred when Northup was left to hang from a tree, just high enough to reach the ground with his tiptoes, suffering for hours as people just went on with their everyday activities around him. It was quite shocking.

The supporting cast is also very good, especially Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford) and Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps). The weakest character is played by Brad Pitt (Bass) who was also one of the producers of the movie.

The soundtrack was interesting, particularly in the first half of the movie with quite a raw and “disturbing” texture as the backdrop to the events. The cinematography was stunning. In fact, I would say that browsing through stills of some of the scenes would be quite stunning. It’s a shame that that same artistry didn’t spill over into the overall structure of the story.

This a movie worth watching because it’s important to remind ourselves of the horror of slavery. However, it felt overlong and didn’t have the potency I had hoped.