Now that 12 Years a Slave is about to open in theaters, the reviews are pouring in. With a Metacritic score so far of 93, 12 Years a Slave, were it not the tinyest bit divisive, would pass Gravity’s score of 96. But there is a small minority of critics who drag it down. Even with those, 93 is higher than most films this year.
Manohla Dargis at the New York Times writes:
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was snatched off the streets of Washington, and sold. It’s at once a familiar, utterly strange and deeply American story in which the period trappings long beloved by Hollywood — the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest — are the backdrop for an outrage.
Owen Gleiberman at EW, gives the film a solid A, writing:
It’s Ejiofor’s extraordinary performance that holds 12 Years a Slave together. He gives Solomon a deep inner strength, yet he never softens the nightmare of his existence. His ultimate pain isn’t the beatings or the humiliation. It’s being ripped from his family, blockaded away from all he is. 12 Years a Slave lets us stare at the primal sin of America with open eyes, and at moments it’s hard to watch, yet it’s a film of such emotion that in telling the story of a life that gets taken away, it lets us touch what life is.
TIME’s Richard Corliss:
These sprawling farms are no Tara — they are gulags — and 12 Years a Slave stands as a fierce refutation of the genial racial stereotypes on display in the Margaret Mitchell novel and David O. Selznick’s movie version. Indeed, McQueen’s film is closer in its storytelling particulars to such 1970s exploitation-exposés of slavery as Mandingo and Goodbye, Uncle Tom. Except that McQueen is not a schlockmeister sensationalist but a remorseless artist. The scenes of black flesh peddled by venal salesmen do not excite; they repel. And repellent is the word for the slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), who encourages potential customers to prod the merchandise and check their teeth like horses.