Saturday, October 19, 2013


Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man living in 1841 Saratoga, New York before getting kidnapped and sold into slavery, leaving behind his wife and children. He was well-educated, played the fiddle and was respected in his community before getting tricked into a two-week music gig in Washington D.C., which led him chained up against his will in the Deep South en-route to the slave trade and stripped of all freedom he ever knew. The eloquent director Steve McQueen documents this unsentimental, unflinching journey to hell and back, and it's certainly not easy viewing. But that doesn't make it any less essential viewing, a testament to film as art. "12 Years a Slave" is a perfect movie, an instant American classic.

Solomon is given the name Platt and sold to the mild-mannered Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) by a slave trader played by a brief but dastardly appearance from Paul Giamatti. Thrust into this cruel new world, the suffocation of helplessness experienced by Solomon is palpable. Ford turns out to be the most tame of slave owners Solomon encounters; the wild, hot-tempered Tibeats (Paul Dano) is the real threat on this particular plantation, tormenting the slave until he lashes out. Solomon gets strung up on a noose forced to wait for Ford's return. He sputters, trying to keep from choking while he hangs, his feet toeing at the slippery mud beneath him, the hot unrelenting sun beating down. Plantation life continues on behind him in real time as we watch him struggle.

It's a stunning singular long shot that encapsulates the director's style, drawing bleak beauty from the ugliness of humanity. McQueen is very much an auteur. It's bold and brilliant filmmaking, aided greatly by an equal parts blistering and moving score from Hans Zimmer and cinematography from Sean Bobbitt who doesn't let audiences off the hook, creating images they soon won't shake. The film lingers on moments much longer than other directors might, including both scenes of quiet reflection and grueling torment.

Solomon's next slave owner is the incarnation of evil, Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose soul has corroded away as he justifies the abuse of his slaves through scripture. His wife (Sarah Paulson) is no better, whose violent jealousy toward slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) leads to her prolonged mistreatment. A borderline unwatchable scene has Epps lashing Patsey until her back is shredded, even making Solomon partake in the cruel act against one of his own. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is forced to carry the burden of the film's atrocities as Solomon Northup in a flat-out Oscar-worthy performance. The supporting cast all astounds, too, especially Lupita Nyong'o embodying Patsey's howling pain. And there are no words for Michael Fassbender who digs deep into himself to create a man controlled by his society's unrighteous ways.

Solomon Northup's memoir was published in 1853 and has been adapted here by John Ridley. In the simplicity of the storytelling, the screenplay commits poetry to the screen. There's a happy ending of the once free and then enslaved man returning to his wife and children after a chance encounter with Canadian abolitionist Bass (Brad Pitt). But it's not the happy ending Hollywood would have; it's somber and permanently stained with the thought of those men and women Solomon leaves behind to the torment of their captors, the ones who will never know freedom to begin with. It's a chilling parable, capturing the darkest hour in our nation's history. This is the best film of the year.


  1. It is not an angry movie or a judgmental one, and this just-the-facts approach brings home the heartbreaking reality of slavery in America.

  2. I thought that the scene of the group of workers singing was good too, especially when Solomon joins in with the voices.