12 Years A Slave is, for better or worse, pretty much what you’d expect: a Slavery Movie about how Slavery Was Bad (Really Bad). It’s not a character study of Solomon Northup, a quasi-documentarian reenactment of history, a political allegory for some contemporary phenomenon, a sociological examination of the institution of slavery, a philosophical rumination on the nature of human freedom/enslavement/control/suffering/etc., or even a sentimental memorial a la Schindler’s List. It’s just… the Slavery Movie.
I suppose that’s not the worst thing to be, and I’m glad it exists (and mildly disgusted that it took until the year 2013 for it to get made), and I’m sure it’ll soon join Last of the Mohicans and Hotel Rwanda as a high-school history class standard. It’s certainly not easy to fault on any formal level. But artistically, it’s hard not to feel that something’s lacking.