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'12 Years a Slave' (review): Movie of the year and for good reason

Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Photo: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The biggest movie awards of the year have been handed out and "12 Years a Slave" received this year’s highest honor, best picture. Like all the other best picture nominees, this movie was re-released in theaters in anticipation of the big night and in theaters, it has grossed more than $140 million. After finally seeing this movie, it is clear to see why such an honor was bestowed upon this movie.

This movie is the adaptation of the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, a New York free African American kidnapped and sold into slavery. The novel was adapted for the screen by John Ridley, who is known for "Red Tails" and "Three Kings", and which won him the Oscar this year for best adapted screenplay. Director Steve McQueen, a British filmmaker, created a visual, harsh realistic adaptation of Solomon's life that although did not win him a director Oscar win, overall it's what helped get this movie the best picture win. His win for the Academy Award for best picture made him the first African American filmmaker to ever win that honor.

Solomon Northup’s story surely isn’t unique during this time in pre-Civil War America. African Americans in the North could live as free men, while in the south they were slaves, bought and sold as property. In 1841, Northup was kidnapped in Washington DC and sold into slavery and being unable to produce “papers” proving who he was, he had no rights and suffered a horrible injustice. Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men” and “2012”) presents a moving portrayal as a free man who loses everything and must fight not only to survive but hopefully one day be free again.

Northup ends up in Louisiana, being forced to use the name “Platt” and it is told that he is a runaway slave from Georgia. A plantation owner William Ford purchases Northup and he treats him moderately descent, although potentially deadly circumstances cause Ford to sell Northup to another plantation owner Edwin Epps. Epps (Michael Fassbender), unlike Ford, is a merciless plantation owner who beats his slaves should they not pick 200 pounds or more cotton a day. Epps distorts the Bible claiming such actions as beatings are biblically based.

Fassbender, known for “Inglourious Basterds” and “X-Men: First Class”, delivers a chilling portrayal of Epps. He is mean, ruthless and heartless, treating all of his African American slaves with no dignity. Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) is a hard working female slave who regularly picks 500 or more pounds of cotton a day and has the “favor” of Epps. Nyong’o won the Oscar for her portrayal of Patsy. Her character is constantly pushed to the limits by the work in the fields and the repeated rapes of her master at night. Nyong’o’s portrayal of Patsy sheds light on the many struggles these female slaves of the time dealt with on a daily basis. Audiences struggle with her and Northup as they witness all of the harsh realities they had to endure simply to survive.

A powerful story and moving performances by all involved is what audiences continue to respond to with this movie. Audiences will be moved, outraged and astonished with the harsh reality of just how unfair conditions were during this time. Northup is just one representation of the time of a free man, kidnapped and forced into slavery. It makes one speculate of just how many other stories such as his existed during this time. History reminds us where we have been and sadly, slavery is a horrible event in the history of America. These movies, such as this, serve to remind us of where we have come from and just why exactly we would not want to go back to such a time.