Movie review: '12 Years a Slave' an unsettling account



In a movie season when man (or the occasional woman) meets adversity -- Somali pirates, an unforgiving sea, AIDS, cataclysmic space debris -- Solomon Northup stands alone.

He is the Northerner who survived "12 Years a Slave" and whose story is not only harrowing but also true.

Northup (portrayed by certain Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living as a free black man in 1841 Saratoga, N.Y., with his wife and children when he is lured to Washington, D.C., under false pretenses.

'12 Years a Slave'

Starring:Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Brad Pitt.

Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.


He is drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery, waking up in the darkness of a slave pen to the sound and shock of the ponderous chains shackling his legs and arms. He has no written proof of his identity, no allies, no power and no way to defend himself when he is denounced as a Georgia runaway and beaten with such force that the wood splits against his back.

When he finds himself with slaves being transported by boat to New Orleans, he is warned to tell no one he can read and write, unless he wants to die. "Days ago, I was with my family in my home. Now you're telling me all is lost. ... I don't want to survive. I want to live."

"12 Years" follows Northup from one plantation and owner to another, with the most notable the cruel and callous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

He believes the Bible gives him permission to whip his slaves, he shows no mercy for those who cannot pick enough cotton to satisfy him and he lusts after a young woman, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o in a breakout turn), who can pick 500 pounds of cotton a day and whose very existence coldly enrages Epps' spiteful wife (Sarah Paulson).

Northup tries to counsel others and himself -- "You let yourself be overcome by sorrow, you will drown in it ... I will not fall into despair" -- conceal his education and weigh any possibility of escape or avenue to freedom. But he faces punishment and peril at every turn.

British-born director Steve McQueen, who made "Shame" and "Hunger" with Mr. Fassbender, spares the moviegoer nothing, from the hangings to the mistress who suggests to an inconsolable mother, "Something to eat and some rest, and your children will soon be forgotten" to the sight and sounds of a slave whipped with such fury that blood and flesh fly from her back.

John Ridley wrote the screenplay based on Northup's landmark memoir also called "Twelve Years a Slave." Mr. McQueen provides no safe havens of sentimentality, humor or prolonged decency -- Benedict Cumberbatch is Solomon's first owner and he kindly gives him a violin but doesn't see the hypocrisy of being a preacher and a slave owner -- or answer for the slave who simply longs for death.

This is not "Django Unchained." This is not "Lee Daniels' The Butler," despite a large cast that also includes Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Garret Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy and Alfre Woodard.

As others have observed, "12 Years" calls to mind "Saving Private Ryan." Director Steven Spielberg said in 1998 that he wanted the audience "to be fairly uneasy sitting through the invasion of Normandy."

That is why he showed one soldier clutching the intestines coiled outside his body, another snatching his severed arm from the sand and a third lugging a comrade across Omaha Beach, only to turn away and find he now has half a body in his grasp. There was blood everywhere and the noise of destruction and death.

Mr. McQueen similarly directs our gaze, showing us what Solomon Northup might have seen or heard. He could have no better guide than Mr. Ejiofor, his expressive eyes blazing, his dignity and humanity always intact, his mind whirring at how to possibly run away, endure or find a witness to his previous life.

"12 Years," rated R and probably not appropriate for anyone under 13 or 14, may be the toughest movie of the year to watch, no matter your ethnicity. The ending is a bittersweet reminder that freedom will never be able to return to Solomon the precious years lost with his family.

And that one man's rescue in 1853 meant no such blessing or justice for the others left behind at the end of the lash.

Opens today at AMC-Loews at the Waterfront, Cinemark Robinson and Manor in Squirrel Hill.

 

 


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: bvancheri@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.

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