GREG'S GRADE: A
In 1841, life is good for Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man, professional violinist and respected member of society living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his loving wife and two children. A high-paying touring job with two fellow artists takes him to the nation’s capital, where after a night of imbibing a bit too much, he wakes, finding himself in an unfamiliar room — a cell — chained to the floor. Unable to produce his “free papers,” beaten, called “Platt” by his captors, he’s sent, along with a few others, to New Orleans and sold into slavery.
That Northup survives his ordeal and eventually regains his freedom is a given, knowing that the film “12 Years a Slave,” by British director Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”), is based on Northup’s 1853 memoir of the same name. That knowledge is almost essential to the viewer, providing a faint glimmer of hope as Northup, stripped of everything but his dignity, to which he desperately clings but feels slipping from his grasp at an alarming rate, endures the evils of slavery for more than a decade.
His first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a relatively kind man. He values Northup and his contributions, and protects him when he can from his cruel overseer, John Tibeats (Paul Dano). He even gives him a fiddle. Eventually, though, Ford is forced to sell Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who, through a combination of drink, religious fervor and possibly a bit of mental illness, is practically a psychopath. Under his watch, Northup spends his days picking cotton, beaten every day he doesn’t collect at least 200 pounds. The demure Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o in a heartbreaking performance) is the most prolific in the fields, and for that and other reasons, she is Epps’ favorite, of which Epps’ equally heartless wife (Sarah Paulson) is acutely aware.
Ejiofor, best known as the villain in the cult favorite “Serenity” (2005), gives a performance for the ages, his Northup broken down so much through the years that by the end, he barely resembles the man he was at the start. The production design, cinematography, costumes, music — all virtually flawless, as is the supporting cast, a mix of unknowns and familiar faces, including Brad Pitt and Paul Giamatti. This film is sure to be a major player come Oscar season.
Possibly the most forceful depiction of slavery ever brought to the big screen, “12 Years a Slave” is not an easy viewing experience. There is no romanticizing of its horrific events, and some scenes stretch on to agonizing lengths. Yet it’s absolutely essential, the “Schindler’s List” of slavery movies.
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. 134 minutes.