Summary: The true story of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped in 1841 and endured twelve years of slavery on plantations in New Orleans.
Review: 12 Years a Slave is the most difficult review I’ve written. I am still recovering from the two-hour and thirteen-minute epic — the brutality, gore and piercing screams are bouncing around in my mind a day later. The sobbing in the theater can only be compared to a funeral. 12 Years a Slave goes beyond film making — director Steve McQueen was a man possessed to tell the story of Solomon Northup. He held nothing back and every time you thought “It’s too much” you remember: This was a true story. No matter how extreme the violence, nothing could fully capture the ghastly horror of living as a slave. 12 Years is the closest we’ll get to slavery and I couldn’t handle being any closer. Welcome to American history…
The London-born director created a timeless film that will go down in history (or at least it should) as the seminal representation of the antebellum South. Based on the 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave, the impeccable script was written by John Ridley, who wove together a complex tale of not only slavery, but the fearless fight for one’s soul. The film will sweep the Academy Awards and Golden Globes — and if the movie doesn’t due to those awkward Hollywood politics, it doesn’t matter. The Fox Searchlight film is more than potential awards and praise from the elite. 12 Years a Slave is a modern day masterpiece.
We begin with Solomon Northup as a free man in 1841 New York with his wife and two children. After being drugged and kidnapped, Northup is sold and “broken” into slavery — broken is an understatement. Moved to several plantations, Northup never accepts the hopeless finality of being a slave. All he knew was freedom, he never knew slavery. McQueen drags viewers through the most gruesome and terrifying depiction of slavery Hollywood has ever seen. 12 Years makes Django and Amistad seem like Disney. Maybe it’s McQueen’s perspective… finally there is a Black director (with roots in the Caribbean) telling a story of the antebellum South — it’s about damn time.
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup is the best performance by an actor that I have seen in my lifetime. Ejiofor went deeper than just acting; it was as if the spirit of Northup jumped into his bones. There was the deepest of sadness in his eyes as he breathed a unique life into slavery, which is too often deadpan, mocked or watered down on the big screen. Ejiofor brought the soul of slavery alive like no other actor before him. He gave a once in a lifetime performance that stands right next to Sidney Poitier in Lilies of the Field and Marlon Brando in The Godfather.
Another notable performance was from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is originally from Kenya, as Patsey. She was terrorized with sexual and physical abuse by the master and head mistress, her character merging the grim reality of being not only Black — but a woman on a plantation. A 10-minute scene, shot with a single camera circling around her weak body tied to a whipping post is unbearable. Blood splashes from the whip with Nyong’o’s screaming in never-before-seen terror and pain. It was reported some audiences walked out of the film during this emotional moment, but this is the scene people need to see — the disgusting stain of barbaric racism is as American as apple pie.
Michael Fassbender as an insane plantation owner appeared to be in a manic trance. Viewers can expect nothing but excellence from the Golden Globe nominee, but the film is not the master’s story — thankfully, it is Solomon’s. Other notable appearances included Brad Pitt, Michael K. Williams, Quvenzhané Wallis, Adepero Oduye and the always-flawless Alfre Woodard.
The visionary Steve McQueen clearly had a goal with 12 Years a Slave — to finally show the relentless, unforgiving reality of the antebellum South and immortalize the life of Solomon Northup. Equally grisly and beautiful, 12 Years a Slave is the reason why films are made. A movie you must-see, no matter how gory or violent — this is American history. Murder, rape, suicide, the auction block and the emptying of the human soul is how African-Americans lived for hundreds of years in the “land of the free.” McQueen strangles the psychosis of racism, forcing the viewer to witness ugliness with no filter nor escape. As brutal and heartbreaking as the film is to watch — can you imagine living it?
12 Years a Slave opens in select cities October 18.