Here is an excellent piece by Wesley Morris which puts 12 Years a Slave in context against decades of white-centered, "uplifiting" movies about race. Morris loses me a little bit when he tries to rope in Miley Cyrus. Whatever one thinks of the VMA routine, the African-American dancers who appeared with Cyrus were compensated and not performing against their will. Ascribing racist intent to Cyrus at this point just feels like piling on. Nevertheless, Morris has me eager to see the film and so does Glenn Kenny. Be warned, Kenny goes into a bit more specific detail on plot than Morris does but if you're worried about spoilers then 12 Years a Slave isn't a movie for you. Morris:
The central dramatic question ought to be how Solomon will get back to his former life. Another movie might have kept track of time. McQueen lets the years simply accrue. Solomon doesn't know whether he'll be freed. His attempts to make contact with the North are thwarted. Either his fruity ink is too weak (even in the 1840s, blackberries are a vexing communication idea) or his messenger too unreliable. He just toils away in his allotted hell. When a woman rolls over and puts his hand between her legs, he abides. When one Sunday Solomon fetches Patsey from a neighboring plantation and the woman of the house, Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), explains to her guests her strategy for survival, he simply listens. Woodard invests that monologue with all her flighty, baroquely accented authority. It's an exquisite piece of writing that acknowledges the cunning and self-delusion some slaves could deploy to make the best of a terrible situation. Ridley typed it up. Woodard turns it into cursive.