By Gary Murray

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti

Written by John Ridley

Based on the book by Solomon Northup

Directed by Steve McQueen

Running time 133

MPAA Rating R

Selig Film Rating FULL PRICE


The ravages of slavery still haunt the American psyche.   The owning of another human to work the fields and tend to their masters still reverberates in our modern society.  It is a festering wound that seems to never heal.  British director Steve McQueen takes on this American shame with the film 12 Years a Slave.

Solomon Northup is a free black man in New York, living a middle class existence as a violinist.  He is offered a job in Washington D.C. with a pair of magicians.  The three get drunk in a hotel and pour Solomon to his bed that nigh.  He awakes in chains.  Two men claim that he is a runaway slave.  Even though Solomon protests, property cannot object and he has no rights.

Before he can do anything to better his situation, Solomon is on a slave ship headed back to the deep South.  The slaves on the boat warn Solomon to keep silent.  If the slave masters find out Solomon can read and write, they will kill him.  Even though he looks for a means to escape, there are no options.

Solomon is taken to a slave auction (run by Paul Giamatti) and sold into bondage.  His first master takes kindly to Solomon, even giving him a violin.  The owner treats the slave with a degree of respect.  The man reads the Gospel to his slaves, saying that their bondage is a part of God’s plan. 

Solomon makes a mistake by showing up a work boss Tibeats played by Paul Dano.  Tibeats, in a fit of rage strings up Solomon.  As the man struggles for air and life, the other slaves go about their work, too afraid to help the man.  It is another horrifying scene that reflects the normality of the situation.    

Eventually, Solomon is sent to a different farm run by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).  He is a harsh taskmaster, using the whip with a manic relish.  He demands his slaves pick at least 200 pounds of cotton and punishes the lowest performers. 

His best slave is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).  She is Epps favorite in more than one way.  The house mistress (Sarah Paulson) knows something is going on, but basically ignores her hated husband.   At this farm he also meets Bass (Brad Pitt) a Canadian abolitionist who realizes the injustice that has befallen Solomon. 

The film is about the hopelessness of an individuals situation and the ultimate truth coming through.  It is an odyssey of struggles that shows the resiliency of the human spirit.   It is also the strongest films of the year.

It has been said that casting is 90% of directing.  Director Steve McQueen picks a perfect cast.  Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti have small roles that are brilliantly executed.  Each bring their A-game to these little roles, especially Paul Dano.  His Tibeats is a simpleton who believes that he is a better man just because of the color of his skin.  His bitter ogre performance stuns with full vile.

Michael Fassbender gives the performance of his career in 12 Years a Slave.  Epps is a crazed character who fights every emotion.  He hates slaves but is attracted to Patsey.  His is the ultimate conflicted character, a man who is just as much a slave of circumstance as the actual slaves he commands.  Another brilliant reading in a brilliant film.

There is a lot of buzz in media circles about Lupita Nyong’o and it is all justified.  This is a raw performance, burning with passions.  She is the most trapped individual of the entire work, a slave with no way out.  There are moments of heartbreak and cruelty that she endures, beatings to a point of near death.  This is a Supporting Actress Nomination performance.

Chiwetel Ejiofor also delivers an Oscar worthy performance.  As Solomon, he is a man over his head.  Trapped in a world he does not understand, the man is treated as a beast.  At every turn, he tries to get out of his bondage, never letting on about the true nature of his existence.  At every turn, there is disaster as he struggles just to survive.

Steve McQueen brings to the screen a hard film to watch.  As honest as it is, it is also just as brutal.  The selling of human flesh is unsettling, the mistreatment of another man in the guise of religious superiority.  The world he paints on his cinematic canvass is very hard to understand in our modern world, but it is a world that we much understand.  We cannot deny our history, just learn from it.

12 Years a Slave is easily the best film I’ve seen in 2013.  Even though it is early in the Oscar race, it is definitely at the top of the heap in the Best Picture category.   This is the kind of film that no one should miss.

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