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A masterful work of both historical horror and visual beauty

October 21, 2013


There are many scenes in "12 Years a Slave," director Steve McQueen's exquisitely rendered take on a true story of one man's struggle with "the peculiar institution," that sear themselves into the mind. But there's one that's especially haunting.

Solomon Northupv (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in pre-Civil War upstate New York who has been abducted and sold into slavery in the South, is being punished for turning the whip on one of his overseers (Paul Dano). He is hanged from a tree but, because his toes can just barely touch the ground, he doesn't die but dangles there, his tortured breathing the only soundtrack.

Meanwhile, life goes on around him unfettered. Except for one young woman who surreptitiously brings him a cup of water, the other slaves quietly ignore him. The very proper mistress of the plantation (Sarah Paulson) looks on from her porch, unconcerned.

It's an emotionally devastating scene, made all the more powerful by the way McQueen (the movies "Shame" and "Hunger") shoots it. There's no music and it lingers for what seems like forever, conveying the feeling of looking at a particularly powerful painting. (That's not at all surprising considering McQueen came to filmmaking from visual arts).

But the much-talked-about "12 Years a Slave" is more than a beautifully shot art piece. It's history made violently real. Unlike last year's movie about slavery, Quentin Tarantino's boisterous but bankrupt "Django Unchained," "12 Years a Slave" feels uncomfortably real.

While the likes of "Roots" and "Amistad" begin with a focus on the recently enslaved not long out of Africa, "12 Years" (based on Northup's memoir) starts with a different figure: a black man born free in North America who has no first-hand knowledge of slavery. He's married, has a family, and is respected in his community by white and black alike.

An ardent violinist, Northup is lured to Washington, D.C., by two men with the promise of a big payday for his musical skills. That's when his dream of a life turns into a waking nightmare.

Working from a screenplay from author / commentator John Ridley ("Red Tails," "Three Kings"), McQueen could have gone heavy with the melodrama and mawkishness. Instead, he keeps it simple, letting the emotion well up from the situation, and then not turning away. That's the case with the much talked-about whipping scene of Northup's friend Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), where he is forced to become his master's brutal hand. It's hard to watch, not simply for the physical violence but for its sheer emotional wallop.

It helps that the British director elicits strong performances from all of his actors, especially his countrymen Ejiofor, who should become a household name after this performance, Michael Fassbender as the troubled and viciously cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps, and Benedict Cumberbatch as the kind but conflicted and ineffectual plantation owner Ford.

The one false note comes from, oddly, the man without whose help the film might not have been made. Co-producer Brad Pitt plays Samuel Bass, a Canadian abolitionist Northup meets during his time in the South. Though this character is based on a man in Northup's life, it feels forced, as if the studio added him to give the movie a big-name star with whom viewers could identify.

But this is a small complaint in what is otherwise a masterful work of both historical horror and visual beauty.



5 stars (out of 5)

Director: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender

Rated: R (violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

Running time: 133 min.


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