|Chiwetel Eliofor in 12 Years a Slave|
If your idea of slavery in the American South is Mammy in Gone With the Wind fiercely protecting her white "fambly" from the evil Yankees, it's time for a reality check. The blistering 12 Years a Slave, directed by London-born filmmaker Steve McQueen, offers up a fearless, unexpurgated portrait of what slavery was like in the only way that could make sense to modern viewers—by plunging a free man into the depths and degradation of the institution from which he is made to realize time and again there is no possible escape.
The film is based on a horrifying true story. Solomon Northrup was a free black New Yorker abducted and sold south into slavery in 1841; he was unable to claim his freedom again until 1853, when he wrote the memoir which inspired McQueen's film.
His was a harrowing journey, which McQueen and scriptwriter John Ridley depict in all its brutality. Those expecting an action-packed escape adventure, or an inspirational Hollywood movie about the triumph of the human spirit had best look elsewhere. 12 Years A Slave is as excruciating as it needs to be in excruciating circumstances, presenting a monstrous chapter of American history in a way you will never forget.
The wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things; Kinky Boots) gets a starring role worthy of his considerable talents as Solomon Northrup. A devoted husband and father in Saratoga, New York, he earns a handsome living playing violin at swanky society dances. Affable, accomplished, and not terribly worldly, he moves in an upscale social circle of genteel whites and free people of color.
So he thinks nothing of it when a pair of traveling performers offer him a fiddle-playing gig down in Washington City for a couple of days. The next thing Solomon knows, he wakes up in chains in a bleak cell, soon to be shipped downriver to a slave auction house in the Deep South.
Solomon's odyssey takes him into the possession of one relatively benign, but ineffectual owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), and one belligerent psycho (a bravura, willies-inducing performance by Michael Fassbender, left). Ejiofor is nuanced and electrifying as Solomon maintains a desperate grip on his identity during his long season in Hell.
But as property without rights, there is no way for these enslaved men and woman to behave with dignity, or maintain any kind of inner moral compass. McQueen shows with heartbreaking precision how this loss of common humanity, even more than chains and beatings, is the true cost of slavery. (Read more)
(Filmmaker McQueen has an unerring eye for the indelible image. In one sequence of calm, spellbinding horror, the victim of a near lynching, with the rope still around his neck, struggles to remain standing on his toes—for hours—while the other slaves go about their business until someone authorized to cut the rope arrives.)
|There's already Oscar buzz for the dynamic Lupita Nyong'o (center) in 12 Years a Slave|