Powerful and difficult to watch at times, 12 Years a Slave (opening today) tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in the early days of the United States who is abducted and sold into slavery. Through his eyes, we are forced to see the brutality - the inhumanity - that existed in our country's past. But there are themes at work that also speak to modern day Americans. Namely, that close-mindedness of accepting the status quo and also living through the narrow viewpoint of one's own place in society.
Northup is portrayed by Chiwetel Ejiofor who gives an Oscar-worthy performance. A free man with a wife and children, he is approached and entertained by two white travelers one evening. Upon awaking after a night filled with spirits, he finds himself shackled and imprisoned. None of his white captors seem to care that he is a free man, because he fits their bill: He is black.
Unspeakable horrors follow. He is sold at an auction where quite literally the auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) has black men, women and children on display as if in a used car lot. Solomon watches as well-to-do white men purchase blacks for a number of reasons: For field work, hand-maids, cooks, servants, or in the case of children, slaves that possess potential to become any of the above. He watches as black children are separated from their mothers and sold without care.
The rest of his journey takes him through a wide sampling of the South. He is first bought by the so-called "reasonable" Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, although how can a slave owner be considered reasonable?), who is kind in comparison to the evil brute, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) to which he is sold to later. Solomon is desperate to save himself but his only chance of surviving is to simply endure.
12 Years a Slave is one of the year's best and you can tell just by the quality of actors that have been assembled. Many well-known, gifted actors, like Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch and Sarah Paulson - to name a few - show up in bit roles, seemingly just to be a part of what they know to be an important film. But it is the performance of Ejiofor that will stand out, along with the supporting performances of Fassbender and Lupita Nyong'o as the young slave, Patsey. This young, mostly unknown actress was absolutely stellar in her role. Look also for bit parts from Beast of the Southern Wild actors Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis, as well as from Adepero Oduye who plays the slave, Eliza. Oduye is an incredibly talented actress who starred in the 2011, scarcely-seen film, Pariah. There are simply gifted actors at every turn.
Director Steve McQueen also directed Fassbender in his last film, 2011's Shame, a film that if nothing else, was known for its raw and shocking bluntness. Apparently, this is McQueen's signature style. There are images in 12 Years a Slave that I've yet to get out of my head.
Solomon's story is easy to rally behind and shows the ugliness that existed in early and recent American history. But this old story also struck me as timely. While our country may have come extremely far in the fight for racial equality and against the injustices of racial segregation, we live in a polarized time. Whether dealing with such a terrible topic as slavery or even a modern-day issue like poverty or gay rights, 12 Years a Slave portrays compassion and tolerance above all else, as the only two virtues that are capable of overcoming such man-made evil.
Run Time: 2 hours, 13 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Dwight Henry, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt
Screenplay by John Ridley (Red Tails)
Directed by Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger)
Opens locally on Friday, Oct 25, 2013 (check for show times).
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How to read Tom Santilli's "Star Ratings:"
- 5 Stars: Exceptional, must-see movie
- 4 Stars: Very good movie, not without flaws
- 3 Stars: The movie was just OK, leaves a lot to be desired
- 2 Stars: Pretty bad, a let-down, disappointing, but with some redeeming qualities
- 1 Star: Awful, sloppy, a total waste of time