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Movie Review: ’12 Years a Slave’ for Best Picture

Movie Review: ’12 Years a Slave’ for Best Picture

Movie Review: ’12 Years a Slave’ for Best Picture
October 22
14:07 2013

Preston Barta // Film Critic

Rating: 4/4

There’s a reason people call it “buzz,” which “12 Years a Slave” is already generating a lot of. The air in the theater crackled with an electric fever as the lights came up and the end credits rolled off the screen for Dallas-Fort Worth critics. The crowd reactions seemed to flow in sympathetic directions: shock and stunned silence. It should come as no surprise that British director Steve McQueen’s harrowing drama has established itself as the Oscar Best Picture frontrunner.

Based on the incredible and true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom, “12 Years a Slave” follows Solomon Northup, a free black man living in upstate New York, who is suddenly abducted and sold into slavery in Louisiana.

As the film begins, Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men,” 2006) introduces us to Northup’s talents as a violinist and the genteel life he leads with his wife (Kelsey Scott) and two children. All is well for Northup as he meets a pair of circus performers, Brown and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam respectively), who hire him for their act. After a wildly successful evening of earnings, alcohol and fun, Northup wakes up— in chains. From this horrifying turn, McQueen spins an incredibly dark and bleak story for the next twelve years of Northup’s life.

McQueen gives audiences an exhausting but effective depiction of plantation life. If you have seen McQueen’s other works, such as the hauntingly beautiful “Shame” (2011) or gripping “Hunger” (2008), you would know more or less what kind of movie to expect here. He is the type of filmmaker who is not afraid to expose everything and take you to dark, uncomfortable places. McQueen makes “12 Years a Slave” so riveting that even when you want to look away, especially scenes that showcase the beatings and tortures that slaves endured, you cannot take your eyes off the screen.

Steven Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning “Schindler’s List” (1993) could make anyone quiver in shame, as it illustrated the despicable reality of the Holocaust; Paul Greengrass’ “United 93” (2006) superbly encapsulated the genuine horrors of America’s darkest hour on September 11th; and Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004) showed the labor of our sins fleshed out into the beaten skin of a sincere man. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley (“Three Kings,” 1999) rival these cinematic masterpieces and put their immeasurable talents as storytellers on full display in “12 Years a Slave,” and the result is the most brutally honest portrayal of American slavery ever captured on film.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in "12 Years a Slave." Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor star in “12 Years a Slave.” Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

A fine ensemble of established, and up-and-coming, actors surrounds Ejiofor in his limelight. While a large majority of the talent is given very little screen time— such as Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Sarah Paulson— all are great and make the best of even the most trivial roles.

Benedict Cumberbatch, who recently wreaked havoc in this year’s “Star Trek Into Darkness,” gives an earnest performance as plantation owner William Ford. However, even Cumberbatch is outshined by the wicked Michael Fassbender, whose illustrious career screams for an Academy Award. Marking his third collaboration with McQueen, Fassbender’s take as the malevolent slaver Edwin Epps just may be his ticket to the golden statue. His menacing performance is magnetizing from his introduction to the end, and at the very least matches Leonardo DiCaprio’s exceptional turn as Calvin Candie in Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” (2012).

Polishing off the exceptional acting are Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose breakout performance as a young, repeatedly brutalized slave named Patsy, is worthy of a nod for Best Supporting Actress. Don’t be surprised to find her name on the Oscar ballot next year. Ejiofor is indisputably the true star of the show, however. His formidable rendition of a wrongfully enslaved man claws at our heartstrings, and is stunning and unforgettable.

Not everyone will be able to stomach “12 Years a Slave.” If, however, you are a fan of the cautionary tales of history, a fan of faithfully adapted autobiographies and want to see a horrifyingly true story from the real antebellum America, then you’ll benefit from seeing this remarkable film.

“12 Years a Slave” opens in limited release this Friday.

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