News Column

Movie review: '12 Years a Slave' excellent, honest

November 28, 2013


Nov. 28--"12 Years a Slave" is the most powerful, horrific, dramatic film I've seen since "Schindler's List." Both are true stories that don't hold back on a shameful period in world history.

"Schindler's List," of course, dealt with the Holocaust, and it won the Oscar for best picture in 1993. "12 Years a Slave" tells the true-life story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who lived in New York in 1841. Two white men persuade Northup to go to Washington, D.C., with them for work. While there, they get him drunk and quickly sell him into slavery. Before Northup knows what has happened to him, he is being whisked away on a slave ship to New Orleans.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the important role of Northup. He is humiliated, beaten and tortured over a dozen years by several white owners. His pleas for help, telling people that he is actually a free Northern black man, fall on deaf ears -- he is more likely to be whipped for speaking out than anything.

This is an unflinching look at slavery, from the sale of human beings at shipyards or in homes, to rape, to tearing apart families, to forced labor, to the horrific beatings. There is a scene of a whipping of a young woman late in the film that brought me to tears. It was painful to watch but brilliantly shot and captured by director Steve McQueen.

While Ejiofor is the unquestionable star of the film, well-known actors such as Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Sarah Paulson all have important, small roles as Southerners.

This is no "revenge-fantasy" slavery movie like last year's "Django Unchained." If anything, this movie makes one feel ashamed for having enjoyed "Django" at all.

Perhaps the greatest flaw here is the movie doesn't do a great job establishing a timeline, beyond telling us that Northup is kidnapped in 1841. It is unclear how long he lives with four different slave owners shown in the movie.

"12 Years a Slave" is considered a front-runner for best picture, and it should be. The film has a 98 percent approval rating from top critics at movie-tracking website Average viewers gave it a similar, stellar 93 percent approval rating.

This film is rated R for nudity, swearing, the frequent use of the "N'-word" and the violence. With that said, mature, older teens should be allowed to see this film. In coming years it should be part of a double-feature with last year's "Lincoln" as must-watch viewing in college-level history classes in helping to understand slavery.

As with "Schindler's List," I have no plan on ever watching this movie again -- the images are burned into my brain and have left a haunting impression. I give this film my highest rating. It is the best film of the year.

Vetter can be reached at 715-723-0303 or


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