12 Years a Slave (2013) (R)















No words can really describe Steve McQueen's newest movie "12 Years a Slave". It's a brutal movie about a brutal time period and most of us would rather not see that. But McQueen understands that a horrible story sometimes has to be told—just look at his two previous feature films "Hunger", which explored the cruel treatment of Irish prisoners in the late twentieth century, and "Shame", a movie that followed the life of a sex addict.
McQueen lets his movies come first and the rating come second...this is the reason why "Hunger" somehow managed to stay rated "R" and "Shame" got branded with the dreaded "NC-17". In both cases however, McQueen proves himself a dedicated and unflinching director...with "12 Years a Slave" he turns that resolve into visual poetry and visceral beauty.
Solomon Northup is a man who wasn't meant for slavery. He was a free man and a talented violinist. He had a wife and two children. In the late 19th century, his family went away from home for a couple of weeks and Solomon was offered the chance to travel with a circus and be paid handsomely for it. Solomon's trip lands him in Washington, D.C. and it's there are he's kidnapped and sold into slavery. He gets treated like dirt, beaten senseless, and spit upon—he went from being a human to being an object. Coping with the transition is not an option...one cannot forget their former life. Solomon determines that he will simply try to survive, however long that may be.
From moment one, McQueen and regular cinematographer Sean Bobbitt make the film dreadfully gorgeous. The landscape of the southern parts of the United States, where the film was shot, looks sensational—contrasting the horrid acts of the characters.
Steven Spielberg tried his hand at a movie concerning slavery: "Amistad". It was a good movie and there were moments of genuine horror in it; yet we have yet to see a true masterpiece come from this sub-genre like we did with Spielberg's film on the Holocaust. This year has been filled with movies about racial tensions: "Fruitvale Station", "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and now "12 Years a Slave". In 2012 Tarantino made his adventure movie "Django Unchained" and it leaves us asking when we will see the end of these pictures. The answer, rationally, is never...but I think it should all end here, with McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" because it is the masterpiece we have been waiting for.
It could have felt like a cameo movie, where a slim premise is carried out by big names who waltz through their roles and collect their paycheck on the other end. "12 Years a Slave" manages to not feel this way for three reasons: 1) the premise is rock solid 2) its leading actor 3) the introduction and dismissal of characters.
It's a huge risk to put a virtual unknown in the middle of a picture as big as this one is. Chiwetel Ejiofor has been acting for over a decade, but I think that this is his true break-out role. He commands the screen with his presence and never over-sells his joys or his griefs. He is a human and makes the audience wonder what we would have done in his situation...his performance is a rarity, a gem.
Then there's the big names: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, and Paul Giamatti. But the script has the characters introduced and five minutes later dismissed, proving that the film is about Solomon Northup's life. 
If you were expecting the film to not be like a punch in the gut, think again. McQueen's audacity and vigor are just some of the reasons why his films are so hard to watch. 
As good as Chiwetel Ejiofor, he is equalled by both Michael Fassbender (in a despotic role) and Lupita Nyong'o.
Northup's fortune seems to smile on him at first, he is sent to a plantation which is run by a kindly man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Everything doesn't turn out pleasantly and Solomon is moved to another plantation which is under the thumb of a man known for his slave-breaking ability. This psychopath's name is Epps (the sensational Fassbender)—he will show no mercy. A bearer of a God-complex, Epps is cruel beyond cruel.
Heart-breaking and radically intense, "12 Years a Slave" is quite possibly the best movie of the year.
Hans Zimmer's score is so beautiful  and reminiscent of his "Inception" work—it will hopefully earn him another Oscar. In fact, Oscars all around...the film deserves a large sweep.
I could ramble on and on about how great the film it...I think I'll stop here. Steve McQueen has made an incredible film about an extraordinary life. "12 Years a Slave" is an instant classic—a deep, mourning, stunning, beautiful, horrid, gritty love song to those who suffered. Perhaps it's best said by Toni Morrison who wrote as the epigraph of Beloved: "Sixty million and more".







Score: 4 out of 4 stars

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