The Hollywood hype-machine has the potential to make or break a fall release. “12 Years a Slave,” in theaters now, has been awash in nothing but glowing reviews. A prizewinner at the Toronto Film Festival, “12 Years” has already been named the Academy Award Best Picture frontrunner. This amount of buzz creates enormous audience expectations, but British director Steve McQueen’s engrossing and brutal depiction of American slavery proves that it is one of the year’s best films.
Based on the memoir by Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave” is the true story of one man’s bondage and his desire to not just survive, but “to live.” Northup, a free Northerner, is a successful violinist who lives in upstate New York with his wife and two children. After being deceived by two slave catchers masquerading as entertainment scouts, Northup finds himself on a riverboat heading to the Deep South. Upon his arrival in New Orleans, Northup is sold to Ford, a somewhat humane plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch. When Ford is forced to sell Northup to the infamous slave breaker Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the story takes a turn for the worse. The remainder of the film follows Northup as he experiences the horrors of the chattel system. British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup to perfection. Virtually unknown in the United States, Ejiofor has made himself a household name with his fiercely controlled and devastatingly honest performance. An actor’s eyes have never conveyed such humanity and emotion.
Ejiofor’s masterful performance is complemented by equally stunning performances from Fassbender, Sarah Paulson and Lupita Nyong’o. Fassbender gives a ferocious performance as the sadistic and borderline psychopathic Epps. His wife, played by the excellent Sarah Paulson, is just as evil and loathsome. Newcomer Nyong’o brings grace and heartbreak to Patsey, a slave girl who is constantly raped by the Fassbender character. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt all provide effective supporting performances.
Steve McQueen is a risk taker. A well-known visual artist in the U.K., McQueen established himself as a promising filmmaker with his previous films. “Hunger,” his 2008 debut, depicts a hunger strike in a Northern Ireland prison. In 2011 McQueen tackled sex addiction in 2011 with “Shame.” “12 Years” is McQueen’s best and most challenging work and no doubt places him at the vanguard of young filmmakers.
“12 Years a Slave” is an instant classic. There has yet to be a film that so unflinchingly and unapologetically depicts the horrors of the plantation system; however, audiences should be aware that the brutal portrayal of slavery is disturbing and at times sickening. Not only is “12 Years a Slave” one of the year’s best films, it is an essential work about the American slave experience.
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