12 YEARS A SLAVE (Steve McQueen, 2013)
Opened October 18
Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is an extraordinary cinematic achievement, an epic historical drama that is as much about contemporary issues of race in America as it is about slavery. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a staggeringly rich performance as Solomon Northup, a free man in Saratoga Springs in 1841, a successful carpenter and musician and accepted member of society, living with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and two children in a beautiful home. When Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) offer him a temporary job playing the fiddle in a traveling circus, he is tricked and sold into slavery, auctioned off to the highest bidder by a greedy man with no moral base (Paul Giamatti). Renamed Platt, he is soon working on a New Orleans plantation owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), where he is regularly harassed by John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who is responsible for keeping the slaves in line. When Northup and Tibeats’s battle comes to a head, Ford sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a far less benevolent slave owner whose wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), rules him with an iron fist. As Epps grows a fondness for the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who can pick more cotton than any of the others, Solomon starts thinking of a way out, risking his life to regain his freedom and return to his family.
McQueen’s third film, following Hunger, about IRA member Bobby Sands’s prison hunger strike, and Shame, which dealt with severe sex addiction, 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing experience, a very difficult film to watch. McQueen holds nothing back, including unforgettable scenes of brutal torture and psychological and emotional torment. Every moment is nerve-racking, particularly when Solomon is hanged from a tree for an extended period of time, his toes barely touching the ground to keep him from being strangled to death. Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things, Kinky Boots) is mesmerizing as Solomon, able to make viewers share his pain with just a glance; McQueen uses his background as an experimental video artist to make unexpected choices that are powerful and unforgiving. The film features numerous outstanding supporting performances, including the brave Nyong’o as the relentlessly brutalized Patsey, McQueen regular Fassbender as the slave owner who thinks he might love her, and producer Brad Pitt as one of the only white men in the South who seems to really understand what is going on. The film was written by novelist and screenwriter John Ridley (Three Kings, Love Is a Racket), who adapted the story from Northup’s 1853 memoir, imbuing it with a freshness and vitality while subtly drawing parallels to the racism that is still prevalent today. Watching 12 Years a Slave isn’t easy, but if you pass it up, you’ll be missing one of the best, and most important, films of this short century.
Nominated for nine Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Director (Steve McQueen), Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o), Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), Best Film Editing (Joe Walker), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhauser and Alice Baker), and Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris)