- Adaptation Displacement: Based on the real Solomon Northup's memoir of the same name, which was published a full 160 years before the movie was made.
- Award Snub: Despite winning the majority of the awards from the critics' circle and the Screen Actors' Guild, Lupita Nyong'o lost a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for Best Supporting Actress to Jennifer Lawrence for her performance in American Hustle. It doesn't help that there was a rivalry between the fans of the two actresses on who wins at the Oscars. Averted, later on, when Lupita won the Oscar, but Chiwetel Ejiofor did not win for his.
- An actual snub did occur with Sean Bobbitt's cinematography, which was surprisingly omitted from the final line-up.
- Hans Zimmer's Score was also expected to reap a nomination, but ended up getting left off (made all the more notable because he was eligible for Rush, too).
- Awesome Music: Hans Zimmer outdoes himself again. The trailer alone makes haunting use of his score from The Thin Red Line.
- Big-Lipped Alligator Moment:
- The slaves coming across the group of Native Americans. It's never brought up again, nor a part of the story. The point was made however: two groups hindered and pained by the same one. No words needed utterance. Their faces said it all.
- A female slave forcing herself on Solomon in the middle of the night. This is never brought up again other than to contribute to the movie's R-Rated Opening.
- Complete Monster: Edwin Epps is a chilling, living example of the utter horrors of slavery and all that it entails. Epps runs his plantation with an iron fist and any slave who picks less than 200 pounds of cotton a day are given the lash. Succeeding is no guarantee of safety, as Epps is liable to fly into violent furies when he's drunk, or just because he wants to hurt someone. Epps forces the slaves out of needed sleep to force them to dance for his amusement in a parody of a Gentleman's Ball and focuses especially on a beautiful slave named Patsey who he calls his Queen Of The Field for her talent with cotton-picking. Epps repeatedly rapes her, saying he can do what he wants with his property. He also flies into jealous furies over Patsey and later in the film forces Solomon Northup to whip her by holding a gun to Solomon's head. Losing patience, Epps simply takes the whip from Solomon and lashes into Patsey until her back is cut to bloody shreds. And when Solomon is revealed to be a free man, he can only think of the monetary loss this means to him.
- Harsher in Hindsight: Patsey getting raped is even worse when one considers that the actress playing her was violated by Harvey Weinstein, and that the career that propelled her into a Hollywood star would also make her come into contact with him.
- Hilarious in Hindsight: Both Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Mister Ford) have played in roles where they were engaged/married to Keira Knightley's character (Chiewetel in Love Actually and Benedict in The Imitation Game).
- The two also appear together in Doctor Strange (2016), where Ejiofor's character is a mentor to Cumberbatch's, a far cry from their roles in this film.
- Moral Event Horizon: The barbaric and abusive treatment towards the slaves, with a few noteworthy examples of the horizon being crossed:
- John Tibeats crossed it by sabotaging Northup's hard work and antagonizing him, to the point where Northup's retaliation is so satisfying to watch. It doesn't end there; Tibeats and the other staff members try to hang him to death, but fail and leave him tied to a tree to suffer slowly and painfully. Ford sees this and is horrified, even selling Northup in order to save him.
- The bounty hunters crossed it by lynching and hanging two slaves. They let Northup go (with an added kick), but they showed him that had they not been merciful to him, he would've joined them.
- Edward Epps crossed it numerous times throughout the movie, such as raping Patsey and his callous disregard towards his slaves' lives. The most evil things that Epps did were spurred by sheer pettiness, such as chasing Northup with a knife when he heard him talk to Patsey and forcing Northup to whip Patsey while threatening to shoot him and the other slaves if he didn't. When Northup is overwhelmed with guilt, Epps snatches away the whip and beats the poor woman until her back is covered in Gorn.
- Mrs. Epps crosses it by physically abusing Patsey to the point where she starts crying in pain and subjecting her to Eye Scream, because she was jealous of Patsey for being her husband's sex slave. (Not that Patsey had a say in the matter.)
- Signature Scene: Solomon on his tiptoes for hours on end to avoid hanging to death. It's a metaphor for the entire movie and is disturbing on so many levels.
- Some Anvils Need to Be Dropped: The film pulls absolutely no punches in showing just how horrific a practice slavery was but, much like Schindler's List, it's a story where anything less would have been a disservice.
- Tear Jerker:
- The scene when Eliza is separated from her children. It's heart wrenching to hear her scream for her children and to hear her children cry out for her.
- Solomon burning the letter to prevent Epps from finding it, before engraving his family's names onto his violin. It shows how homesick and desperate he feels.
- Every moment of the scene where Epps punishes Patsey. Solomon is forced by Epps to whip her, and he's clearly disturbed at the thought of harming his friend, yet does so anyway. Eventually, Epps gets impatient and threatens to kill him if he doesn't whip harder, so he tries to whip her as hard as he can, but Epps eventually runs out of patience and whips Patsey in the most sadistic manner possible. The next scene has Patsey crying from the pain covering her bloody, scarred back, while Solomon breaks his violin out of guilt. It becomes even more tear-jerking when you realise that the violin was a gift from William Ford (the only white person who treated him well so far) and he had carved his family's names on the violin as mentioned earlier, meaning that Solomon's hope was destroyed alongside the violin.
- What an Idiot!: Northup didn't tell his wife where he was going after agreeing to becoming an entertainer. Granted he wasn't expecting to get kidnapped, but it still would have been sensible in case something went wrong. If he had done that, it's probable he would have been freed from slavery much earlier.
- The Woobie: Patsey. In her first few minutes onscreen, Mistress Epps throws a crystal decanter at her face, and she later claws the spot that she hit on her face. And it only gets worse from there as Master Epps' obsession with her escalates into rape and a particularly brutal whipping.
- Solomon Northup as well, obviously.
- Eliza, separated from her children, is exactly as heartbreaking as it sounds.
YMMV / 12 Years a Slave