Movie review: A stunning look at America's awful past in '12 Years a Slave'

Published November 7, 2013 5:23 pm

Review • An artfully mounted, emotionally direct survival drama.
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In "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley confront one of the most horrific chapters of America's history — the legal slavery of fellow human beings — in a way that dares viewers not to turn away.

The filmmakers refuse to sugar-coat the arbitrary injustice of slavery or soft-pedal the brutality dished out to Americans of African descent by white men who saw these people as property. They take the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black who suffered a dozen years wrongfully imprisoned and forced into hard labor, and try to reproduce his terrible experiences with unflinching accuracy.

We meet Northup (played by the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) in 1841, a family man in upstate New York who earns a good living as a musician. He's lured to take a lucrative gig with a circus in Washington, D.C., but the job is a trap — Solomon is drugged and kidnapped, and finds himself in shackles and sold to a Louisiana slave trader (Paul Giamatti).

On the voyage to New Orleans, Northup is advised by another black man (Michael K. Williams) that silence is a key to survival. A slave, Northup is warned, must not talk back, challenge a white man or let on that he is literate.

Northup, without papers and given the name Platt, is first sold to a clergyman, the Rev. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford treats his slaves comparatively well, sparing the lash and even letting Northup earn a little side money playing fiddle for local parties. But Northup runs afoul of Ford's overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and Ford stands idle when Tibeats strings Northup up by the neck and leaves him hanging from a tree, his toes barely touching the ground.

Ford then sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who masks a streak of cruelty under a veneer of quoted scripture. On Epps' plantation, the slaves endure not only backbreaking labor but capricious punishment for not meeting quotas for the amount of cotton picked each day. Epps also amuses himself by forcing his slaves to dance in the middle of the night and by pleasuring himself with the pretty Patsey (played by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), whose very existence angers Epps' shrewish wife (Sarah Paulson).

At every turn, Northup faces the callous violence perpetrated against blacks in the pre-Civil War South. But what's perhaps more disturbing, and more dangerous, is the thoughtlessly arbitrary way whites treat slaves — changing the rules unpredictably and doling out bitter punishment for the slightest infraction.

McQueen, a black British director who worked with Fassbender on the intense dramas "Hunger" and "Shame," gives the drama the feel of a survival thriller as Northup constantly watches for new threats from every corner. He also juxtaposes the brutal with the pastoral, setting these shocking events against the gorgeously alien landscapes of rural Louisiana.

Ridley ("Red Tails," "Three Kings") smartly employs 19th-century language where necessary — such as when Northup declares his intention to seek the chance for escape and "to keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune" — and finds even more power using no dialogue at all. And, though the title implies a specific time frame, McQueen never provides any clues of how much of Northup's 12 years has elapsed — meaning that neither Northup nor the audience knows how or when this torment will end.

In a film brimming with great performances — including Fassbender as the ruthless Epps, and Nyong'o's star-making work as the tormented Patsey — Ejiofor's portrayal of Northup shines. Ejiofor ("Children of Men," "Kinky Boots") embodies Northup's fortitude and resilience, and the rage and frustration he had to suppress to survive.

Many scenes in "12 Years a Slave" are effective, but one in particular is haunting. It's a simple moment, with Northup just reacting to what has happened. He stands there, breathing hard, looking in no particular direction, desperate to figure out what to do next. At one point, he looks straight at the camera — making eye contact with us — and he silently implores us to bear witness to the tragedy we have seen. Don't just watch, "12 Years a Slave" tells us, but remember, and strive to prevent such inhumanity from happening again.



'12 Years a Slave'

A true-life account of a free black's struggle as he's kidnapped into slavery forms the basis for a harrowing, and beautifully realized, survival drama.

Where • Area theaters.

When • Opens Friday, Nov. 8.

Rating • R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

Running time • 134 minutes.



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