The multiplex where I saw it put it in a small theatre on the top floor, but I would say that it was more than 80% filled on the holiday weekday I saw it and a mixture of white and African Americans. The movie is based on a narrative written by a free black man named Solomon Northup from New York State in the 1830/40 who was tricked into accepting a job with a circus in Washington, DC. The men accompanying him on this journey got him drunk on the first night and he found himself chained up in the morning and ready to be sold. It then chronicles parts of his life during the twelve years his being bought and sold by various masters and the kindness and cruelty from the other blacks and whites. Much has been made about the violent whipping scenes in the movie but truthfully they are no more violent then most R-rated movies nowadays.
The positives vastly outnumber the negatives. The acting is great as Ejiofor shows us a man who knows he is free but learns that being silent is often safer than speaking out. Benedict Cumberbatch who must be in just about every movie nowadays has a small role, does a decent Southern accent and plays the kindest of Northup's or (Platt as he is now called) masters. But even the kind master lets him be strung up for a day as punishment and when Solomon's life is in danger from the ex-overseer whom he beat up, sells him to pay his debts as a way of getting him to safety. Michael Fassbender is the other standout as the cruel and psuedo-religious Mr. Epps. While some people thought his role over the top, I thought he did a great job in showing a very complex evil man. The tension in his household about his infidelity and favoritism towards a young female slaves leaves him and his wife to take out their frustrations with each other on the slaves. Particularly cruel is the beggar's dance him and his wive make the tired slaves do for entertainment. When Patsy(the favored slave) dances too freely in one scene, Mrs Epps throws a wine decanter at her head. In other dance scene, she offers food to all the slaves while telling her husband they should all be whipped due to their insolence.
The other positive is the scenery and music. Both beautiful and haunting with the nature scenes belying the hell the slaves endure.
The biggest flaw I found was the odd passages of time and the flashbacks interspersed with the present day. For me, it was sometimes hard to tell how much time had passed since there were no years give and most of the cast looked no older at the end than the beginning.
But those are hardly major problems. Overall, 12 Years a Slave is a solid movie that while not breaking new ground, shows the complexity of both the blacks and whites in the slave years. While not all whites are bad-not all the slaves are good. The black overseers whip the slaves in the fields, the black house slaves keep the field hands off the front porches of the plantations and in one scene, a female slave that has married her master boast about how she now has slaves working for her and it was worth it to let her master have his way with her.
At the end we that though Solomon sued both the man who sold him and the men who conned him into going with them, because of blacks not being able to call whites as witnesses, he never won his case against them. Interestingly the man who sold him lived a mere mile from my house and was a prominent slave trader her in Alexandria. It makes one think what they would have done about slavery in that time period. I'd like to think I would have opposed it but if I had grown up with it, would I still feel the same? Points to ponder.