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Movie Review - '12 Years a Slave' drawing a harsh and all too revealing picture

12 Years a Slave


Refreshing history – It’s hard for any of us to really understand or know slavery in the way those who lived through it did. But, it’s part of America’s history and pretty much why we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. on January 20th. Sure, there is a little more to it, but it’s hard not to think of MLK when you start talking about civil rights and slavery. And I’ll be honest, when I first saw the trailer of “12 Years a Slave,” I thought to myself, “wow, another film about slavery.” Truth is, though, we haven’t had one in quite some time, so in a way, this can be the younger generations film to look back on when remembering slavery. At least, that’s why I think director Steve McQueen pushed to make it, which up to this point was clearly a very good idea.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in "12 Years a Slave"
Fox Searchlight Pictures

The story here…which was adapted from the 1853 memoir of the same name, follows a New York free slave by the name of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his unfortunate journey into slavery. It all started back in 1841 when Northrup was approached by two men, who after hearing him play, offered him a job as a musician. Knowing it would only be for a couple weeks, Northup agreed and went off with the two men. After a night of heavy drinking and partying, Northrup wakes up in chains wondering what happened. Next thing he knew, he was being sold into slavery and shipped off to New Orleans under the name Platt. He winds up being sold to a William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who surprisingly wasn’t too bad of a plantation owner and boss. But, when Northrup got into a fight with racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who also worked for Ford, everything changed. Shorty thereafter, Northrop was sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who sadly was the complete opposite of Ford. Believing it was his right to abuse slaves, Epps wasn’t the easiest to work for making those next month’s, which turned into years, some of the hardest Northrop had ever experience leading to a conclusion you will never see coming.

Acting out – This cast might not look like much, but do not let that deter you from this film. They were amazing and it all started at the top with Chiwetel Ejiofor, who carried this film with ease from start to finish. I was truly shocked at what I was watching from this British actor many people do not know. Sure, he is widely acclaimed across the pond, but very few people will be able to name his last four films. I know I couldn’t if put on the spot without as a resource. So, it was nice to see him take this role and absolutely run with it in all the ways you would hope for. His emotions kept the audience engaged as you saw through his eyes just how difficult those times were for people of his color. That’s key to the overall success of this film, which he was not alone in. Leading the supporting cast with a vengeance was Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, who each had their moments.

Especially Fassbender, who I’ll admit was pretty darn good in this film. I just wish he wouldn’t overplay everything, but at least in this role, it was needed more times than not. Other notables include Paul Giamatti and producer Brad Pitt, who each hammered home points in limited screen time. But, it was Sarah Paulson, who stole the show in my mind. Playing the wife of Epps, she took over scene after scene she asked, which quite frankly was unexpected given the story that was going on. I mean, I was really taken by surprise by what she was able to do, making me wonder why she hasn’t had more nods go here way this season. But, I guess those nods were already taken by Lupita Nyong’o, who played Epps’ (Fassbender) favorite slave Patsey. This first-time actress was no joke either, having to really step out of the comfort zone more than once in a performance, while brilliant, that is very hard to watch at times.

Lightning McQueen – For those like me that never heard of Steve McQueen, raise your hand. Outside of his last name, which clearly makes me think of “Cars,” I couldn’t have told you what he did before this film. But, it really doesn’t matter, when you figure this film alone is putting his name on the map in a way he could have never imagined. And to think, it all is a result from a simple gesture to writer John Ridley about making this film. I guess sometimes, that’s all it takes, but clearly McQueen had a vision for this story that is quite amazing when you break it down. Remove all the blood and unspeakable truths away and this film becomes one everyone should see at least once. Watching it more than that might be tough, considering the content, but I can’t say enough about how well McQueen managed this cast. They all fit together so well making me wonder how it didn’t walk away with the SAG award for best ensemble. Without that connection between the actors this film would have never made it into film festivals, much less a big screen for everyone to watch and endure. So despite director Steve McQueen using one too many artsy shots in a film that frankly didn’t need it, this was a whole lot more powerful than I thought it would be.

Bottom Line – There’s no doubt a lot will be said about “12 Years a Slave,” but as brutal as this film was to watch at times, it was a story everyone should know. Whether that will be enough come Oscar Sunday, who knows, but for right here and now, it’s one that very much deserves the praise it has already been given.


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