“12 YEARS A SLAVE” Review (✫✫✫✫)

Over a decade of injustice and cruelty.

12 Years A Slave is quite possibly the best film of the year.

It is also the most disturbing.

Based off the 1853 autobiography of the same name, 12 Years A Slave follows the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who lives with his family and plays the violin in Saratoga, New York.

One evening, he becomes acquainted with two young gentlemen who claim to be circus performers looking to hire him for a one-night gig. When he wakes up the next morning, he is in chains, and realizes that he was drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery by his captors. During his years as a slave, Northup goes from one owner to the next, from a kindhearted owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) to a cruel, racist and mean-spirited pig named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who presents the greatest trials he must face if he is ever to survive.

12 Years A Slave is a film that not only lives up to all of its built-up hype and expectations: in many ways, it exceeds them.

Its quality as a work of art is so striking and powerful that it can be compared to other historical tragedies, including The Pianistand Schindler’s List.

Director Steve McQueen, who made the morally reprehensible and eerily bleak film Shame back in 2011, redeems himself here as a filmmaker. McQueen, in collaboration with cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, is not only masterful with framing his articulate, beautiful shots with 12 Years A Slave, but also brilliant with orchestrating scenes between his actors, showing us the bleak realism and truth of the slavery years in America.

Ejiofor, who portrays Northup in 12 Years A Slave is endlessly captivating. In moments where you think he might just be phoning it in, or just going along with the motions, he surprises you and releases an emotional intensity in ways no other actor has this year, not even Forest Whitaker in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o plays a young female slave in this movie so passionately that you forget she’s an actress and slip into her character’s tragedy as a human being more than you do as a movie character.

Most noticeable perhaps is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, who is so hateful and so spiteful in this role that all of the audience’s energy, anger and frustration is focused on him and his sadistic acts. Fassbender was brilliant in his portrayal, and I sincerely hope that he at least gets an Academy Award nomination for his performance.

Every other aspect of this film can be praised endlessly. The script by John Ridley, who wrote Three Kings in 1999, was endlessly emotional and captivating. The score by Hans Zimmer was quiet, humble and breathtakingly beautiful, encompassing both the truth and tragedy of Northup’s heartbreaking story.

However, let there be a strong word of caution: 12 Years A Slave will elicit violent reactions from its audiences. You will laugh. You will weep. You will grind your teeth in anger and frustration, maddened by the many years of cruelty, prejudice and barbarism that no human being should ever have to experience. But it compels you to care for the character, to reach deep down in your heart to feel what he is feeling, to experience compassion and sympathy in ways almost no other film can do, not even with Schindler’s List. 

And let this be a testament to the film’s quality: at the end of the showing, there was a white man who could be heard weeping in the back of the theater. In between his hiccups, tears and hysterical reactions, he turned toward the black viewer sitting next to him, shook her hand and after introducing himself said to her, “I’m so sorry for what my race did to your ancestors.”

That man felt a powerful feeling of guilt and shame for the things that he saw in 12 Years A Slave.

That man was me.

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