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Film Review: '12 Years a Slave' is a Brutal Tale of Survival of the Human Spirit

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The Academy might as well drop Chiwetel Ejiofor’s name in an Oscar nomination slot today for his portrayal of a free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War era drama 12 Years a Slave. And while they’re at it, they might as well go ahead and write in Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o for supporting actor nominations, too. Or Paul Dano and Alfre Woodard. Yes, this star-studded ensemble is that good.

The Steve McQueen-directed film (Shame, Hunger) is based on the memoirs of Simon Northup, an educated, free black man from upstate New York, who lives a comfortable middle class existence with his wife and two children. A musician by trade, Northup is lured to Washington, D.C., to perform for a few weeks with a traveling show. At the end of the engagement, he celebrates with his business partners—only to wake up in shackles the following morning. In his naiveté, Northup tries to reason with his captors, explaining that he is a free man. For the audacity to even tell his captors that a mistake has been made, Solomon gets a beating—the first of many.

Northup is eventually sold into slavery as Platt Hamilton, serving several masters deep in the Louisiana bayous. His first owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a fair man who sees that there’s something more to Platt and manages to listen to, and in some regard, respect the slave. But when Platt attacks Tibeats (Dano, in a seething performance), the plantation’s insecure, ignorant and ill-tempered overseer, Ford sells the slave to another owner rather than risk anything more.

His next owner Edwin Epps (Fassbender) and wife (Sarah Paulson) are brutal people. Their slaves are property—merely objects that are meant to be broken. It’s especially fascinating to watch Fassbender in this role as a man who detests himself for being attracted to Patsey (Nyong’o), a young slave girl. He can show affection one minute and strike her the next. Mrs. Epps is none too pleased either, and she too takes her hatred, jealousy and malevolence out on Patsey.

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Newcomer Nyong’o gives a riveting performance as the girl who’s simultaneously the object of Epps’ love and hate. She looks to neighbor Mrs. Shaw (Woodard) as an inspiration. A former slave who’s now married to a white plantation owner, Mrs. Shaw is the genteel woman of the house. Because Epps is unhinged, Patsey can never have what Shaw has. Woodard has about five minutes in the film, but it’s a memorable role as a black woman who now owns slaves herself.

Much has been said and written about the brutality in this film. And it’s true—nothing is sugar-coated. It's intense, yes, but serves as a good reminder that the ills like slavery existed—and still exist—in the world. There are two scenes in particular that stand out as the epitome of human cruelty—that are stomach-churningly difficult to watch. After Platt attacks Tibeats, he’s strung up and nearly hanged, left stretched with his feet barely touching the ground for hours as the rest of the slaves go about their daily business. In a visual oxymoron, McQueen shows children at play around Platt as he struggles and fights to stay alive.

In another scene, captured in a single take, Patsey is punished for no reason, and Mrs. Epps tells her husband to whip Patsey at the post in front of everyone. He balks at first and forces Platt to do it instead. The girl is struck mercilessly—to the point where we can only flinch with her—but her wails are even more gut-wrenching as she’s being tended to after the beating by her fellow slaves. The sights (and sounds) of both these scenes are hard to forget.

Throughout the film, we watch as Ejiofor embodies Northup/Platt as a man who accepts his fate, yet manages to retain a sense of dignity. He rebels in little ways—trying to write a secret letter, destroying a violin given to him by one of his masters. And while other slaves lose the will to live, he never lets himself forget that self-preservation is vital to seeing his family again.

Both McQueen and writer John Ridley (Red Tails) managed to keep out many of the melodramatic elements that are inherent to Solomon’s story. The passage of time—his 12 years in captivity—is not marked onscreen and that’s a wise choice. The audience senses how the days, weeks and years blended together for a slave. Clocking in at 134 minutes, however, this also works against the filmmakers. A few scenes could have been cut because viewers can clearly understand how brutal life and work conditions were after the first few examples.

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We also have to mention the great use of music in the film. Hans Zimmer’s score, coupled with spirituals and even Tibeat’s demeaning ditty about slaves, adds to the film’s already emotional heft. At a graveside service, we watch as Solomon, at first, refuses to join in the singing of “Roll Jordan Roll,” but then we watch as Ejiofor’s face goes through a range of emotions as his character is overwhelmed with anger and sorrow that culminates in a powerful rendition of the song that shakes audience to the core—much like most of 12 Years a Slave.

12 Years a Slave is in theaters today.