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Mitchell's Top 20 FIlms of 2013: #1 "12 Years a Slave"

"12 Years a Slave" (2013)
"12 Years a Slave" (2013)
Fox Searchlight Pictures

1. "12 Years a Slave" - “Your story is amazing and in no good way.”

A day laborer named Bass (Brad Pitt) says this to Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), and his statement is unfortunately right.

A pair of men dupe Northup, a free man living in Saratoga, NY in 1841, and sell him into slavery where he spends (and loses) - as the title suggests - 12 years of his life.

Northup wrote his memoir, “12 Years a Slave”, and director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) transforms his story from book to film, and in the process constructs the very best movie of 2013.

McQueen pushes a poignant hand to explain Northup’s nightmare and shows the worst of humanity during a shameful portion of American history.

Throughout the film, the narrative demonstrates two main themes: the business of slavery and the cruelty it generates.

From a business-perspective, merchants sell Northup and other human beings like cattle to plantation owners, and then plantation owners work the slaves to death or, on occasion, sell or trade them just as easily making a simple transaction at the local general store.

Slaves were not treated as property.

They were property.

One of the key characters is Solomon's master, a viciously brutal plantation owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender), and he not only establishes his role as a tightly-wound businessman, but also one who savagely delivers his demands.

Epps - who often quotes scripture - enjoys the fruits of his free labor while “his property” picks cotton from his fields during long days in the unforgiving heat.

Heaven help a slave who does not meet Epps’s daily cotton quota, and since he sets the bar so incredibly high, beatings become inevitable to everyone at some point.

One slave, however, is treated differently, and her name is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).

Patsey creates a quagmire for Epps because he loves her, but at the same time, she is just a subserviant piece of property to him as well.

His conflicted feelings generate anger and confusion, and his only known relief is to inflict violence.

Fassbender and Nyong’o were rightfully nominated for Best Supporting Actor and Actress Oscars respectively, and their relationship is scorched into my memory.

Solomon Northup’s journey obviously found a place in my brain’s permanent hard drive too, and Ejiofor’s performance deservedly earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination.

Ejiofor’s Northup had to learn to let go of his resistance to his forced circumstance.

No longer named Solomon, he is forced to take the name Platt and needs to “become” Platt in order to survive.

Solomon/Platt cannot display signs of his education or his ability to read or write in any way, or death would be his destiny.

Ejiofor gives a heroic performance as we see Solomon reluctantly slide into Platt, and McQueen treats this transformation with deliberate purpose.

McQueen, Ejiofor and everyone else connected with this film performed an important service.

Everyone needs to know Northup's story because it is “amazing and in no good way.”

Follow me on Twitter: @MitchFilmCritic

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