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174 of 210 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A gut-wrenching history lesson by a masterful filmmaker, November 4, 2013
This review is from: 12 Years a Slave (DVD)
Theatrical review. There may be spoilers.

It is unlikely anyone who goes to see this film won't have some idea about what it's about. There have been many fine films about slavery. And while 2012's "Django Unchained" certainly has violent elements associated with American slavery, that film and others often remind you that it's only a movie. This movie will draw you in and does so with the unique history of Solomon Northup, an actual freeman who lived a good life in Saratoga, New York. In 1841, he had a beautiful wife and 2 children (one played by Oscar nominee Quvenshane Wallis). He was a classical violinist and highly respected in the community.

Approached by a pair of "gentlemen" (including a couldn't-believe-my-eyes Taran Killam from "Saturday Night Live") Solomon (an amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor) is enticed by a financial offer to play a gig in Washington, D. C. Once there, he is kidnapped, shackled and sent by steamer to New Orleans. Upon his arrival he is sold as an escaped slave. During this first act, Solomon must quickly learn how to behave, how to act. Just to stay alive. Even talking is frowned upon, so Ejiofor must speak to the audience with his eyes and his expressions to project the torment he is experiencing. Director Steve McQueen often focuses the camera on faces to bring out the pain of the oppressed as well as the viciousness of the oppressors. McQueen doesn't shy away from anything so be prepared.

Slaves, both men and women, are herded together like cattle. They are stripped, hosed down and sold naked. It is hard to watch. Even harder, mothers and children are separated. This is gut-wrenching story telling. Solomon, now called Platt, must hold it together, keeping his wits so that he can eventually reunite with his family. Solomon is first sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man of some benevolence as slave owners go. He gives Solomon a violin. He is relatively kind. He is portrayed as a man who is uncomfortable with his position but must accept his role as master. When Ford's cotton crop is infested with disease, he must transfer ownership of some of his slaves and does so to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender in another great performance).

Epps is a polar opposite to the meek-mannered Ford. He is vicious and violently sadistic. As noted above, McQueen and his photographer bring out the evil in Fassbender's performance. Epps is not only focused on teaching Solomon a lesson, he always has eyes for a slave known as Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o). She is but a wisp of a woman but always picks more cotton than any of the men. She is regularly raped by Epps, to the point he doesn't even hide it from his wife (Sarah Paulson). This means that Patsey not only receives harsh treatment from Edwin but from his wife in equal measure. Solomon does his best to comfort Patsey, but has his own agenda.

In one sequence Solomon trusts a white slave (who knew?), under Edwin's control to work off a debt, with the promise to mail a letter back to his family. The man is paid what few coins Solomon had and upon his release promises to mail the yet written letter. Instead, he rats out Solomon to Epps. When confronted, a tired Solomon must quickly formulate a lie. Looking Epps directly in the eye, Solomon without a quiver, delivers a believable story without hesitation. Remarkable stuff.

Remember what I said about "it's only a movie?" There is one shattering scene where Solomon is forced by Epps to whip the stripped Patsey as punishment for her wandering off to a nearby plantation. And for a while, as uncomfortable as it is to watch, we only see the pain in Solomon's face as he lashes Patsey. OK, enough already right? Instead, McQueen swivels his camera around the tree to see the peeled and scarred back of the woman as the whip tears off her skin. This is tear-inducing filmmaking on many levels, but this scene induced many gasps from the audience and a couple walk-outs.

But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley want audiences to see the evil and feel the pain in the film. And boy do they succeed. I would be remiss if I didn't talk about some of the technical elements of the film. During some of the difficult scenes rather than averting my eyes, I was able to focus briefly on some of the great photography in the film. As unusual and contradictory as it may seem, "12 Years" is technically masterful. The soft glow of the cotton fields, the hazy setting of the sun, the insect spreading its wings, somehow add a respite of civility to this great film of a disgraceful American past. Look for Oscar nomination for actors Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o, director McQueen and more.
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