12 Years a Slave, a Gripping Story of Inhumanity (Film Review)

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Gripping, absorbing and thought provoking 12 Years a Slave spools out a story based on a book by enslaved Solomon Northup who tells all with a fine performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor.  The film delivers an indelible view of slavery much like the narratives “Roots” and Amistad.  It’s very unsettling and sometimes brutal, underling a time when man’s inhumanity to man was prevalent in the American South.    

Anything for a dollar, that’s what slave traders believe during one of the worst times in American History.  They even kidnap and sell a black free man accusing him of being a fugitive slave, just to walk away with a pocket full of coin. It’s a prologue to the dark and tragic story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a family man and violinist from Saratoga Springs, New York who one day while strolling in a park, gets duped by two men that abduct him and sell him to a slaver.

The book he wrote following his ordeal goes on to tell the horrendous account of his 12-year life as a slave and the road back to freedom.  During that time Solomon found himself living the torment to which most northerners turned a blind eye.  Putting in hard days in the cotton fields, receiving meager rations and getting a beating if he steps out of line, the learned man avoids the taskmasters’ whip as much he can.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York prior to his abduction

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York prior to his abduction

Director Steve McQueen keeps his film tight and moves it along at a fast clip introducing the unwitting Solomon, his abduction and then sale to a devious slaver Mr. Freeman (Paul Giamatti).  McQueen shows the cruelty beset on Solomon who gets dragged in chains to the Deep South by his abductors. In Louisiana he gets sold to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and later used to settle a debt when he’s given to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  McQueen also shows the selling of other slaves including women with children that get separated, severing the bond between mother and child in one gut wrenching scene.

 Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o,  and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 YEARS A SLAVE

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 YEARS A SLAVE

This story about slavery is different than we’ve seen in the past as it opens the wound of how ruthless men in the North became opportunists using slavery as a means of income.  McQueen uses this different element to bring his audience into the wrath that that takes place on the Plantations in the American South.  Much like Django Unchained there’s the uncaring owners, their vicious taskmasters, the small one room cabins, perverse punishment and other atrocities told in his nearly two and a half hour film.   But, it’s not the only pallet that was painted of the cruel time in American History. Roots opened our eyes with a television miniseries that ran nearly 10 hours showing the beginnings of the slave trade in America through the Civil War. Amistad (1997) and last year’s Oscar winner Django Unchained rekindled the interest and now 12 Years a Slave indelibly delivers the message in Northup’s biography.

The acting by Chiwetel Ejiofor is very good creating a character that is touching, crafty and smart in the ways of his white masters.  Ejiofor keeps his Solomon hopeful that he will find a return to his family using his violin to gain amiability with his owners.  He cunningly listens to and watches other slaves who have tasted the bitterness of the plantation owners and uses their words to avoid making mistakes and being beaten.  Jealousy and power by his keepers take Solomon into the depths of despair hanging him from a tree limb at one point. Ejiofor shows us that person who gets broken to a point that nearly ends his life.

Patsey  (Lupita Nyong’o) gets checked for stealing

Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) gets checked for stealing

But the show stopper comes from Lupita Nyong’o performance as the slave Patsey who defies the system and gets cruelly beaten.  Nyong’o shows the agony from the whipping yet the persistence of not yielding to her treacherous owner who takes out his own failings of lust on his human property. McQueen uses her to show the brutal and meaningless punishment that takes place on the plantations of the South.  Her story is only one of the cruelties that are depicted in the film, but Nyong’o’s chilling interpretation sticks with you way after you leave the theater.

The film does have a downside in that it jumps around a lot showing all the details of Solomon’s plight with flashbacks and even a flash forward. The beginning credit shot has a photo that’s an omen of what’s to come and we find out later how it ties into the story. Although the technique has been used in many films, here it seems to confuse especially when it comes to secondary characters.

12 Years a Slave has been rated R by the MPAA for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Be cautious when deciding to allow immature children see the film as it does have some scenes that are very inappropriate for adolescents.

FINAL ANALYSIS: A very good film with excellent performances. (B+)

Additional Film Information:
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot Mcnairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, and Bill Camp
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Genre: Biography, Drama
MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality    
Running Time: 2 hrs 24 min
Opening Date: November 8, 2013
Distributed by: Fox Searchlight

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