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12 Years a Slave - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
12 Years a Slave
Directing: A
Acting: A
Writing: A
Cinematography: A+
Editing: A

If you think 12 Years a Slave is the kind of movie that is a chore to watch, something you must force yourself to endure because it's important rather than entertaining -- well, actually, that's essentially what it is. It's more than that, and it's flawlessly executed, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't relieved to have gotten it over with. I don't particularly want to sit through it again.

But should you see it? Of course! Are there also far more fun alternatives to see in theatres? That's a yes too. But if you care at all about seeing the best films of the year, this one does need to be on your list.

It is, indeed, painful to sit through. It's true that there are relatively few overtly violent scenes, but that's in the context of a constant threat of it. Director Steve McQueen (Shame) paints a vividly realistic picture of how slaves were treated, and the way slave owners, however progressive they fancied themselves to be, thought about them. 12 Years a Slave is not always violent, but it's filled with unspeakable horrors -- but horrors that must be spoken, because they are horrors on which this country was built.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives arguably the performance of his career as Solomon Northup, the actual born-free man who was kidnapped in mid-nineteenth-century Washington D.C. and sold into slavery. He wrote the book, with the same title, on which this film is based. He is hired by self-described circus performers to travel there from his home in New York, where he has a lucrative week playing the violin. The last thing he remembers, he's so drunk he has to be taken to his hotel room by his new friends. He never suspects them later, and McQueen takes care not to implicate them particularly. He simply wakes up later, with no papers and without his nice clothes, and chained to the floor of a cell somewhere.

Forced to leave his wife and two children behind in the Northeast, Solomon thus spends the next many years serving under several different "masters." Curiously, this parade of white bastards consists of star-studded casting: Benedict Cumberbatch as the first to buy him, along with Paul Dano as one of his much more sinister hand; then on to Michael Fassbender as the much less merciful Edwin Epps, who gets most of the screen time among these characters. His wife is played with muted menace by Sarah Paulson. Even before all that, we see Paul Giamatti as the original slave seller to cross Solomon's path. Every one of these characters is deeply entrenched in the slave culture and economy, betraying no sense of injustice in the very idea of owning human beings. "It is no sin," says Edwin at one point. "A man can do what he pleases with his property."

Not until we see the face of Brad Pitt, which is so famous it's somewhat of a distraction, do we find a white person with any distaste for the institution of slavery. He comes along late in Solomon's story and ultimately holds the key to its ending.

As famous as all these people are, they are absolutely secondary to the performances of those playing slaves, particularly that of newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, the woman sold away from her children and then abused in every horrible way you can imagine by Edwin Epps. She is then abused in turn by a jealous Mistress Epps. She is so tormented that she asks Solomon to put her out of her misery, and you almost want him to to do it.

It's possible that no other American film so succinctly illustrates the massive moral hypocrisy that was the institution of slavery. Over time, northern states abolished it first, thereby creating the rift that led to the Civil War -- this film depicts a time in which such clashes were imminent. Slave owners used the Bible to justify their actions against slaves, but denied them the right to read it for themselves. Good hearted northerners aided runaway slaves and others kidnapped free northerners and sold them into slavery. Solomon is only one of a few such people who made it back, so says one of the end title cards.

The story of how he got there and back is about as harrowing as it gets. The lush southern landscapes are beautifully shot; it can be jarring to see such horrors among such natural beauty. Solomon is hung by the neck just high enough to keep himself alive by standing on his tip-toes; slave children play in the field just beyond, indifferently. Anyone who is convinced the world is going straight to hell these days would do well to consider what life was like two centuries ago. 12 Years a Slave makes this point clearly at every turn, right down to the blitheness of slave owners' ignorance: "Your children will soon be forgotten," says Mistress Epps, as though speaking to an animal.

Watching this movie, at least for the privileged white person like me, is a little like taking the medicine you know you need. One wonders how it differs when viewed by people who are neither black nor white, with no relevant associations in their heritage. Regardless, this is a story that taps into what makes us who we are as a nation, both then and today, for Americans of all stripes. It's the kind of movie that will garner Oscar nominations because the voters know that it is expected. From any attempt to look at it objectively, though, this is one movie that would also deserve such attentions.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is a formerly free man enduring 12 YEARS A SLAVE.

Overall: A
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