In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. (IMDB)
Writers: John Ridley (screenplay), Solomon Northup (based on “Twelve Years a Slave” by)
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender
Run time/Rating: 134 Minutes/ R
Popcorn Score: Large Popcorn
After Steve McQueen solidified his style with Shame in 2012, the depressingly raw, completely unfunny story of a sex addict, it was expected that he would take a similar approach with subject matter even more horrifying; slavery. I don’t believe there has ever been a movie made which depicts the horrors of slavery more so than 12 years a slave. Using an autobiography by the hero Solomon Northup as the base for the endurance test of a movie, both for the characters in the film and the audience, McQueen sets up scenes that make you feel trapped and helpless, yet to only the smallest of fractions of what the characters on screen are feeling. It is a horror movie in the most accurate description. It is the most powerful film of the year.
Soloman Northup is a free man living with his family in upstate New York. He works as a concert violinist. He is introduced to a couple of men who offer him a promising gig in Washington which is only supposed to last a few weeks. After he is abducted, stripped of his freedom papers and sold into slavery those few weeks turn into 12 years of the most horrible physical and mental torture any person should ever endure.
The torture would not have been felt through the screen so powerfully if it were not for the tremendous performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor. His pain and suffering along with his determination is felt with every wince and with every hopeful stare in a world that seems hopeless. His only motivation to endure the suffering is that he believes he will someday be realized and live life with his wife and children again.
When it comes to the issues of entrapment, being held hostage with no clear and favorable outcomes yet the trapped protagonist remaining hopeful, it reminds me of The Shawshank Redemption with perhaps higher stakes – which I never thought could be done. Solomon Northup was not stricken to walls or a cell in 12 Years a Slave but there is no doubt that he and the other slaves in that time were in prison.
A fairly lengthily movie is not made easy to watch by all of the horrors but performances by the above mentioned lead as well as supporting actors Michael Fastbender, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch all make the movie impossible to look away. Late in the movie when Brad Pitt makes his expected appearance you are already overwhelmed with the brilliant performances and are not sure if it can get any better. He comes in as an abolitionist character to the other and plays it brilliantly.
12 Years a Slave is not the light hearted easy entertainment that many people will choose to spend their $15 on to go and see in the theater. But this movie acts as a painful reminder of a part of this country’s history that as terrible as it was, needs to be remembered. Additionally on a more entertainment basis, choose to see this great film nevertheless, because come Sunday March 2nd at the Academy Awards when Chiwetel is giving the speech for his best actor award, you will have wished you had seen his performance.