DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

12 YEARS A SLAVE (director/writer: Steve McQueen; screenwriters: John Ridley/based on the book by Solomon Northup and David Wilson; cinematographer: Sean Bobbitt; editor: Joe Walker; music:  Hans Zimmer; cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup/Platt Hamilton), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Garret Dillahunt (Armsby), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Scoot McNairy (Brown), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Adepero Oduye (Eliza), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Brad Pitt (Bass), Michael Kenneth Williams (Robert), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Chris Chalk (Clemens), Taran Killam (Hamilton), Bill Camp (Radburn); Runtime: 134; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Brad Pitt/Dede Gardner/Jeremy Kleiner/Bill Pohlad/Steve McQueen/Arnon Milchan/Anthony Katagas; Fox Searchlight Pictures; 2013)

"A remarkably gripping and frank social conscious pic about the horrors of slavery that's earnestly directed by Brit former visual artist Steve McQueen."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

A remarkably gripping and frank social conscious pic about the horrors of slavery that's earnestly directed by Brit former visual artist Steve McQueen (“Hunger”/ “Shame”), of West Indian parents. It's a true story based on the experiences of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well-to-do married man with two children who is a free Negro violinist living in Saratoga, New York. In 1841 (some 20 years before the Civil War) Northup was drugged, kidnapped and sold to an unscrupulous slave trader (Paul Giamatti) and remamed Platt Hamilton while tricked into taking a fake job in Washington, D.C. by two white scoundrels, introducing themselves as artistic entertainers. Northup ends up for the next 12 years going through a series of degrading and life threatening experiences as a slave.

It's based on Northup's 1853 published memoir and its drama is kept gut-wrenching by the racially charged screenplay written by African-American screenwriter John Ridley and McQueen. The writers take it past the safety viewing of TV's Roots and even past the unflinching Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's recent popular western-like satire of slavery.

Northup learns in the Deep South the hard way that no one can or will help him, and that letting on he's an educated free man named Solomon Northup not Platt Hamilton would only make matters worse. The troubled man survives a terrible boat ride in chains to New Orleans, as he proclaims “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” The educated free man now slave, in order to survive as best as he can, must endear himself to his new owner, the cultivated New Orleans plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), someone he calls "a decent man under the circumstances," until trying circumstances, like a potential lynching, gets him sold to taskmaster slave owner Epps (Michael Fassbender). He's a drunken quoter of Scripture to justify his sadism and someone who is known as a "nigger breaker." Things on this plantation get hairy until by chance the subsequent help of an itinerant carpenter, the Canadian abolitionist Sam Bass (Brad Pitt), saves the day for Northup.

The shocking racist pic is well-acted, especially by Brit thesp Ejiofor, the heart-felt moving performance of the Negro slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and by Sarah Paulson as the jealous and bitchy wife of Master Epps. It's also informative and powerfully stark in its graphic depictions of slavery for the viewer of any race to identify with. It shows whippings, lynchings, the everyday cruel life on the plantation for the slave, the use of the "N-----" word in the most derogatory way and how the ordeal of self-restraint, even when knowing you are right, takes precedence over everything for Northup as he eyes a way to escape his ordeal and return to his loving family.

It's essential viewing even if it, probably, is not one of the most entertaining films you will ever see. Instead it's a rare film on slavery that allows us in a mature way to begin realistically looking at the ugly tragic bigoted spots in America's past that should not be forgotten or tolerated again. It's a sobering film long overdue in America, that's ironically shot by a Brit.

REVIEWED ON 11/15/2013       GRADE: B+

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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