Review: “12 Years a Slave” a Brutal, Essential Masterpiece

I loved “12 Years a Slave,” but not in the same way I loved other films from 2013 like “American Hustle” or “Blue Jasmine.” It’s more like in the way I love, admire and revere such masterpieces as “The Killing Fields” and “Apocalypse Now.” Director Steve McQueen’s third feature is not entertaining; you cannot sit back and re-watch it repeatedly and it is certainly not for the faint of heart. However, it should be essential viewing for every American because, like the aforementioned films, it is a masterpiece and depicts the most authentic view of the American slave trade ever rendered on film.

“12 Years a Slave” is based on the true account of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofer), an African American born free in New York who, in 1841, is drugged, captured and sold down south as a slave. Over the course of the next 12 years (and the movie’s two plus hour runtime), Northup is owned by several masters, one somewhat kind (Benedict Cumberbatch) and one an unimaginable monster (Michael Fassbender) and put through more physical and psychological trauma than any one human could possibly survive. Through his trials, he befriends a young woman (also a slave owned by Fassbender’s character and played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o) who is her master’s favorite both as a worker and a sex toy. The master’s despicable behavior towards this woman is played out blatantly in front of his ever maddening wife (Sarah Paulson) who does things to combat this behavior by hurling glass bottles at this woman’s face and finally forcing her husband to whip the girl senseless.

As I said, this is not easy stuff, but the brilliance of the film comes from McQueen’s stunning direction (the penultimate scene literally made me slap my chest because I had stopped breathing), a flawless screenplay (by John Ridley), beautiful cinematography juxtaposed with the cruelty inflicted upon these people and, especially, the acting. The large, international supporting cast are uniformly excellent, particularly Cumberbatch, Fassbender and Nyong’o. Yet this film belongs entirely to Ejiofer who delivers a powerful, tour-de-force, simply the best performance of the year. His eyes alone reflect the unbelievable level of cruelty and inhumanity he endures. It is incredible work, one worthy of every acting award around.

Besides the incredible production values, “12 Years a Slave’s” greatest strength lies in the presentation of its subject matter. This is not a film that merely shows all white people as bad and all black people good, but instead takes on the more difficult challenge of illustrating just how damaging the evils of slavery affect everyone involved in its practice. The horrors that are placed upon the Africans brought over to the United States are clear and rendered accurately and painfully on screen, but the film also displays how otherwise decent men like Cumberbatch’s character are rendered vile because of their participation in this horrible system.

As I stated of last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” McQueen’s masterpiece is unequivocally the best picture of the year, as well as being the most important film of the last two decades and should be essential viewing for all Americans or for anyone who simply thinks the pre-Civil War South was the idyllic land of gentility and nobility seen in other films like “Gone With the Wind.” “12 Years a Slave” is rated R and will be available to rent or buy on March 7th.

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