The new film, "12 Years a Slave," is the most powerful and horrific depiction of slavery ever. It's based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. It's not an easy film to watch, but it's a necessary film to see.
There was no ransom demand for Mr. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, pronounced CHOO-ih-tell EDGE-ee-o-for) because after the kidnapping he became what all slaves were, a commodity. He ends up being sold off to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic plantation owner who is hell-bent on breaking him. Epps' demented alcoholic rages are also directed at fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) whom he regularly beats and rapes. Her existence is so unbearable that she begs Mr. Northup to take her life. The despair is overwhelming.
In one particularly disturbing scene, Epps forces Mr. Northup to violently whip Patsey by threatening to kill other slaves if he refuses to do so. It's just one of many long, lingering shots that seemingly never end. It's as though Director Steve McQueen doesn't want to let his audience off the hook. In an interview, Fassbender comments, "It is as it was." And it was one of the most horrendous chapters in our nation's history.
McQueen is known for tackling tough subject matter. In "Shame" and "Hunger" (both also starred the fabulous Fassbender), he took an unflinching approach addressing touchy issues. In "12 Years a Slave" he employs it once again, and the impact is shocking. He has also chosen wisely to team up with composer Hans Zimmer, who provides an emotive score, and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who manages to balance beauty with desperation.
The casting is impeccable. Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch and, yes, Brad Pitt, all show up in relatively small, yet immensely engaging, roles. But it's Ejiofor, in a life-changing performance, who entirely owns this astonishing film. Mr. Northup's fear, longing and inner strength are ever-present in his excruciatingly expressive eyes. As much as we may want to look away, Ejiofor makes it utterly impossible.
"12 Years a Slave" is an unforgettable masterpiece, destined to be a classic. But, most importantly, a film of this caliber can have a profound effect on human nature. It demands that we never commit the sins of our fathers ever again. Ever.
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