Title: 12 Years a Slave
Fox Searchlight Pictures
Director: Steve McQueen
Screenwriter: John Ridley, based on Solomon Northrup’s book
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt
Screened at: Paris Theater, NYC, 10/15/13
Opens: October 18, 2013
If you’re looking for a movie on a serious subject with a great deal of wit and irony, you couldn’t do better than to go with Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained.” For more of an exploitation tone, Richard Fleischer’s 1975 movie “Mandingo” about a man who trains a slave to be a bare-knuckle fighter is your best bet. For a TV serial, of course there’s “Roots,” Marvin Chomsky and John Erman’s TV mini-series, which caused quite a stir for its graphic and accusatory look at man’s dehumanization of his fellow man.
For a serious consideration of what is called “the peculiar institution” with all of its degradation, brutality and immorality that makes one question what sort of nation we once were, “12 Years a Slave” is your best bet. For such an epic tale, Steve McQueen is the perfect director. His “Hunger” in 2008 depicts the martyrdom of Bobby Sands who led members of the Irish Republican Army on a hunger strike in a Northern Ireland jail.
“12 Years a Slave” is drenched in blood, passion and injustice in its illumination of a story that is all the more wrenching in its being adapted from the actual memoir of one Solomon Northrup. From 1841 to 1853 he was enslaved on a southern planation despite his being a free man living in Saratoga, New York and enjoying the patronage of people of wealth who hired him to play the fiddle for their dances. Chiwetel Ejiofor takes the lead role as the title figure, one who is named Platt though in truth he is Solomon Northrup, a fellow with a wife and two kids who more often than not is spiffily dressed in a brown suit and matching bow tie. Trusting a pair of well-dressed people who offer him a sizable sum to accompany them and to perform on his violin, he is instead drugged with wine at a posh restaurant, waking up attached with chains to his legs and arms. Insisting at first that he is a free man living in New York, he learns to accept a new identity thrust upon him by his slave-masters, who would beat him unless he went along with their lies.
In one graphic scene we watch as Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) holds an indoor slave market featuring naked black men and women sold as though they were thoroughbred horses, noting for the rich attendees the muscular figures he pats on the chest. “Platt” is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is relatively decent, and a final trade puts Northrup into the hands of the most sadistic of plantation owners, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who has a reputation of breaking disobedient field hands and whipping workers who fall short of picking under two hundred pounds of cotton in one day (try it!).
The rich women don’t get off easily, as Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulson) resents the attention her husband pays to the beautiful Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)—who aside from serving as an unwilling but resigned release for her master’s sexual tensions is also the most productive woman in the field. Expect the audience to gasp when Mistress Epps throws a heavy decanter into Patsey’s face and later takes pleasure in watching the poor woman get whipped to within an inch of her life by Platt, threatened with death if he refused.
While the R-rated “12 Years a Slave” would be a perfect eye-opener for kids now in middle school or high school, one wonders how many parents would want their young ones to encounter what was going on in our freedom-loving nation during some of its most savage years. In filming the epic indictment of slavery which is adapted from Northrup’s book by John Ridley, Sean Bobbitt respects audience patience by his many long takes, enjoining editor Joe Walker from making the cuts that are so common in TV sitcoms and most serious movies alike. The war between master and slave is fully convincing given the impressive talents of much employed Michael Fassbender and of Chiwetel Ejiofor, the latter demonstrating his charisma as well in Steven Spielberg’s “Amistad,” about a mutiny on a slave ship in 1839.
The soundtrack is filled with spiritual songs by the field hands, as though contrasting their love with the brutality of their overseers. Almost needless to say, “12 Years as a Slave” will be remembered during awards season, including on March 2 of next year at the Oscar celebrations.
Rated R. 134 minutes © 2013 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online
Story – A-
Acting – A
Technical – A
Overall – A