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'12 Years a Slave' review: A brutal tale beautifully told

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12 Years a Slave

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Steve McQueen claims his name in the industry. We still revere its predecessor, but quizzical looks are now one's own mistake. Let the nomination rollout commence.

With "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen brings what ties for the title of our country’s greatest shame into the most unfiltered realization since Alex Haley’s "Roots" back in the mid-1970s, and takes it a step or three further. And in so doing, brings us a remarkable opportunity for healing it.

Based on the true account, "12 Years a Slave" tells the tale of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in 1841 upstate New York. A happily married father of two, he enjoys a respected position in the town of Saratoga, the joy of his musical gift for the violin, and eye-to-eye negotiation with the local merchants.

Until one day he accepts an offer of a professional gig, only to realize it’s a ruse leading to waking up in chains and being literally sold down the river into the hell known as Antebellum Georgia.

From here one might imagine what lies ahead, and it does… but not as one might imagine. Steve McQueen is the unchallenged master of communicating the interior story amid exterior events. With "Hunger" it was the travail of starvation; with "Shame," it was the bondage of addiction; with "12 Years a Slave," it is the evil of chattel slavery.

McQueen somehow never lets us leave the experience of our protagonist even as he lays out the horrific force of what is being brought against it. Unlike so many filmmakers, McQueen portrays the environment as it actually is, from the ordinary naturalness of a man who sleeps in the nude simply climbing out of bed in the morning to the terrific atrocity of state-sanctioned sadism. In so do doing, he keeps us inside the mind, keep us looking through the eyes, of the one witnessing, experiencing, and suffering said events. It’s a quite marvelous talent.

It’s a talent that lets us truly understand another’s human experience in a way that means something, in a way that can unlock compassion and create room for communication and healing.

Of course a talent like this requires actors who can execute, and once again McQueen has Michael Fassbender leading the proceedings. Here Fassbender takes a supporting position to the superb Chiwitel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. I’ve enjoyed Ejiofor since his excellent turn as Don Cheadle’s haggard advocate in "Talk to Me," and here he utterly inhabits Northup’s quest to “keep himself hearty until freedom makes itself opportune.”

As heart and hope begin to fail over time and treatment, Ejiofor fully captures the nuances of a certain moment in which Northup gives up his quest, but doesn’t, but does, but doesn’t, hard to say, even for him. That’s a difficult moment to represent physically, and Ejiofor executes flawlessly.

For Fassbender’s part, one really must hand it to him (I mean literally, as in statuettes, please). People go on endlessly about the “courage” it takes to do sex scenes, but for real courage, let’s take a look here. His performance as plantation owner Edwin Epps (known as “the slave breaker”) resounds with a virulence so deep it risks being attributed to Fassbender himself. Together with exceptional Sarah Paulson’s irises of stone, they make a ferocious pair and epitomize the reason such a thing cannot be allowed to stand.

Fortunately this pair do not stand today, but their ilk ~ the likes of the trader played by Tony Bentley, who chillingly captures a Fassbender moment of his own ~ unfortunately do. As Epps loses his power over Northup, he clutches viciously at him and thanks to Fassbender we see in visual unvarnished form the mentality and spirit of those who still harbor this attitude and posture toward others. It may be wrapped pretty now, but this is its nature, for all to see.

Thanks to McQueen, "12 Years a Slave" begins to unbundle the conversation. In the secrets of our own hearts we will find ourselves represented somewhere: in the legacy of Solomon Northup and the so-called “New England Yankees” who recognize no distinction; in the lasting hurt coming down from the fellows of enslaved Patsey (played by astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong'o); in the “kind within an unkind system” double-mindedness of the merciful plantation owner (arguably an absurd oxymoron, but onward); in the insidious ownership mentality of Epps; and in the courage and willingness of the traveler who carried Northup’s message home.

McQueen’s ability to present the experience and his cast’s fortitude in portraying it offer the opportunity of making healing conversation possible, if we have the fortitude to engage it. It is my great hope that we all recognize that we all existed then and we all do now, today, and that those of Patsey’s descent may begin to feel genuinely heard (there are myriad reasons I think this can happen here). I heartily encourage every parent to see it and then watch it with their sons and daughters at the earliest appropriate age; the film is rated R for its graphic violence, but there’s nothing that didn’t actually happen altogether routinely, and that doesn’t still cause pain today. If we can start the conversation early, we stand a chance of righting it.

McQueen and company deserve every accolade come springtime. I’ve talked long enough and no doubt many others will extol its glories from a more technical perspective (including a superb turn by Paul Dano as a despicable Epps mini-me).

Bring a Kleenex; I did and I needed it, and halfway through realized my hand was sore from gripping it. "12 Years a Slave" is another star in the stellar McQueen/Fassbender collaboration, and another magnificent gift to us.

Story: The true experience of Solomon Northup, a free black man of New York abducted and sold into the slavery of Antebellum Georgia.

Genre: Drama, Biography

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt

Directed by: Steve McQueen

MPAA: R

Running time: 133 minutes

Official site: http://www.foxsearchlight.com/12yearsaslave/

Houston release date: October 25, 2013

Tickets: Check Fandango, IMDb, or your local listings

Screened Oct 23rd at the Edwards Grand Palace theater in Houston TX

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