“12 Years a Slave” (Drama/Biography/Historical: 2 hours, 13 minutes)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt
Director: Steve McQueen
Rated: R (Profanity, violence, nudity, sexuality and thematic elements)
Movie Review: Based on Solomon Northup’s “12 Years a Slave,” this film, like the writings of Northup, details over a decade of slavery as witnessed by Northup. It is a remarkable tale based on real-life events involving the horrific brutality of slavery.
In 1841 Saratoga, N.Y., Solomon Northup (played keenly by Ejiofor) is a noted musician, husband and father of two children. He is a free man until sold into slavery while in Washington, D.C., by capitalists claiming to be entertainers. For 12 years, Northup is placed on one plantation after the next, being passed from one slaveholder to another. He witnesses the brutality of slavery daily.
For years, history ignored the brutality of slavery, even after it had ended. Historians omitted most of the malevolent acts of slaveholders, such as the raping of female and male slaves, the splitting up of families, the manner in which slaves were beaten and deprived of basic rights to decency. The writings of Northup and others were light to the dark evils of slavery.
“Twelve Years a Slave” showcases the viciousness of slavery as viewers witness injustice and violence faced by Northup and other slaves. Ejiofor (“Children of Men,” 2006) plays Northup well. You feel for his cause to become free again. Slavery breaks him in many ways, yet his love for his family keeps him thriving in a place where death might be a more desirable choice occasionally. Ejiofor maintains his character soulfully.
The film boasts some good acting. Cumberbatch and Fassbender are talented actors who play plantation owners. Their roles are different. Cumberbatch’s character is a slave owner who treats his slaves with some dignity, and Fassbender is pure malice. Alfre Woodard is good also. She stirs the waters as a slave turned wealthy by coupling with a white slave owner.
The surprise star of this drama is Lupita Nyong’o (television mini-series “Shuga”). The Yale University graduate is moving as Patsey, a slave constantly raped by her master and tormented by the her master’s jealous wife, played nicely by Sarah Paulson. When Nyong’o’s character begs for death, one can easily understand why. Her life contains torment she cannot escape, and Northup witnesses it all.
Steve McQueen (“Hunger, 2008) makes this film about a tragic American period with an earnest flair. He wants audiences to see the brutality of slavery at its height. He achieves that, although the film often appears to allow itself to sink into those moments excessively deep too often. To contemplate the moments presented, the film has nice lengthy visuals to ponder on the appalling complexity of what was. This is a nice touch as it allows audiences a chance to digest what Northup witnesses before showing more.
Despite the brutality offered, “12 Years a Slave” is worthy of being observed by all who can. It is a nice reminder that a great amount of this country was built upon the work of the black slaves, who were treated like animals yet remained strong.
Hats off to McQueen, Ejiofor and the rest of the cast, and writer John Ridley for the in-depth tale about the treatment of a free man and witness to slavery.
Grade: A- (Worthy of 12 accolades plus.)