12 Years a Slave Review: Unrelenting, Yet Effective Brutality

Photo Credit:http://www.washingtonpost.com/goingoutguide/movies/12-years-a-slave-movie-review-a-masterpiece-of-form-content-emotion-and-performance/2013/10/16/1b158e76-34e8-11e3-8a0e-4e2cf80831fc_story.html

Every year there are a couple slavery movies that the advertisements call “thought provoking” and “original”. With 12 Years a Slave, believe the advertisements.

The “slavery film” has become tired in recent years, with filmmakers opting to make manipulative, heavy-hearted films that win them Oscars. The difference between Steve McQueen and them is the unapologetic realism he forced onto the film to make this story set in a period well before our lifetimes feel genuine.

Following the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofer), a free man from Saratoga, New York that gets kidnapped and brought to the South, 12 Years a Slave goes through just about every level of the moral spectrum with a diverse cast.

Ejiofer gives a startlingly quiet performance as Solomon, referred to by his slave name Platt for most of the film. The way he and McQueen take us through the 12 years is fascinating. In many ways, the film runs too long. But that may have been McQueen’s intention. Either way, what’s important is that we are not once clued in to where we are in the 12 year period. It could be year two or year 11. In the end it really doesn’t matter, as Solomon’s will to live never waivers.

We also get a mix of dastardly and hopeful performances from the supporting cast, with shades of grey inbetween. Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, and Brad Pitt all give memorable turns at various moments in the ambiguous passage of time.

But if we’re talking Oscars (let’s face it, this is one of the best reviewed movies of the year and it’s about slavery, we are definitely talking Oscars), Michael Fassbender gives a terrifying turn that would send Leonardo DiCaprio’s devilish plantation owner from last year’s Django Unchained running for his mama. The only truly comparable performance I can think of is Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. 

He’s a character that makes Solomon’s will to live that much more impressive. This is the second film this year that beautifully shows the most basic human instinct: survival (the first being the outstanding Gravity). Mixed with the startlingly real history behind it, you’ve got one hell of a story. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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