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Movie review: '12 Years a Slave'

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12 Years a Slave


It seems like films are finally coming around to portraying the brutality of American slavery in a more truthful, realistic manner. Last year, Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” looked at the horrors of slavery—albeit in an exaggerated manner—in a way that was often hard to watch. But Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”, a drama based on the true story of Solomon Northup, goes all the way, exploring all manners of ways in which slaves were treated in the most heart-breaking, brutal, and likely realistic way possible.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, and African American living in New York with his family in the years prior to the Civil War. Solomon is a free and learned man, one who is well-distinguished by his peers. But when his wife and children go out of town, Solomon is tricked by two men posing as circus managers who want him to play the fiddle for their show, and kidnapped and taken South to be sold as a slave. With no papers on him to prove his freedom, Solomon is threatened and forced to pretend he truly was born into slavery, and isn’t well-educated, out of fear for his life. As the title implies, Solomon serves as a slave for twelve years before he is freed, working for a few different masters, some of whom are kind and others cruel, and witnessing firsthand the horrors of slavery, from which he was once so far removed.

Ejiofor’s amazing performance is one of the many high points of this film. His portrayal of Solomon is complex and often heart-breaking, as he struggles to remain dignified while also doing what he has to to survive. To put it simply, it would be a shame for him to not receive an Oscar, as his performance is certainly the best of any actor this year. The supporting cast is also phenomenal, with some of the best actors working today popping up in various roles throughout the film. Michael Fassbender is downright scary as the cruel slave owner Edwin Epps, while Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, and Paul Dano all play characters who often challenge Solomon with their harshness, but occasionally show him unexpected kindness. Relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o also deserves recognition for her emotional portrayal of Patsey, a slave who is abused by Epps and his wife.

What is also wonderful about this film, however, is that it isn’t a one-sided view of slavery. Yes, for the most part there is brutality, and many of the Southerners, particularly slave owners, are cruel. But then there are those who aren’t mean, who don’t treat the slaves with disrespect and, in fact, care for them in a way. The varied array of characters presented help show that slavery really was a complex issue, and the relationships between slavers and slaves could range anywhere from familial to abusive.

12 Years a Slave” is also beautifully shot and edited, with the sound editing playing a particularly important role in setting the tone of many scenes. It’s a gorgeously-crafted film, and even if it is sometimes hard to watch, those scenes are so very necessary.

Steve McQueen, who has made some daring films in the past, including 2011’s “Shame”, further proves his skill as a director with this film, which turns a story about slavery into an inspiration, while Ejiofor will hopefully finally get the recognition he deserves. “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best films to be released this year, and rightfully so.

Runtime: 134 minutes. Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.

Check out showtimes for this movie and more at the following St. Louis-area theaters:

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