’12 Years a Slave’ – one man’s journey to freedom on Hulu and Paramount+

Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave (2013) stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man in 1841 America. A musician and carpenter with a wife and two children, he is kidnapped in New York by a pair of con men and sold into slavery in the South.

Directed by British filmmaker Steve McQueen from an adaptation of Northrup’s memoir, 12 Years a Slave chronicles the odyssey of Northrup, a husband, father, and American citizen dropped into the hell of slavery, fighting to survive and escape back to his family.

Benedict Cumberbatch costars as Ford, who purchases Solomon from a New Orleans auction and grows to respect his intelligence and skills. That only enrages Ford’s white engineer (Paul Dano), who takes his anger out on Solomon’s person. When Solomon fights back (a crime that could cost Solomon his life), Ford sells him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the most brutal slave owner of the area, to save him from a lynch mob. Solomon and the other enslaved people of his estate (notably Lupita Nyong’o as the young Patsey) live and die by the whims of the abusive, emotionally volatile Epps.

Brad Pitt, who also produced the film, plays a Quaker carpenter who works on a project with Solomon and, learning his story, agrees to help, and Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Michael Kenneth Williams, Garret Dillahunt, and Paul Giamatti are among the costars.

What’s most impressive about the film is the way it shows how slavery distorts humanity on all levels. When human beings are treated as property, it corrupts the owners as it takes away the self-worth of the captives. While there is a vast gulf between the “bad master” played by Fassbender and the “good master” played by Cumberbatch, this “good” man is a slave owner nonetheless and never considers another way.

It won three Academy Awards—best picture, supporting actress (Lupita Nyong’o, whose acceptance speech was a work of art) and adapted screenplay (by John Ridley)—plus BAFTAs for best film and best actor (Ejiofor) and five Film Independent Spirit Awards among its many honors. It was added to the National Film Registry in 2023.

Rated R

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
12 Years a Slave [Blu-ray]
12 Years a Slave [DVD]

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The Blu-ray and DVD releases include the featurettes “The Team” and “The Score.” The Blu-ray offers an exclusive third featurette, “A Historical Portrait.”


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.