"12 Years A Slave" Review

Title: 12 Years a Slave 
Director: Steve McQueen Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard 
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures 
Genre(s): Drama 
Rated: R (For violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)

Every decade or so there is a film that comes along that transcends films in general. These films can range from wildly inventive to brutally honest. The latter half represents movies like “The Killing Fields,” “Schindler's List,” and “Saving Private Ryan,” where the events are so difficult to watch you find yourself seeing a major life event for what it really was. “12 Years a Slave” is just that sort of film, as it tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man in America who was born a free man and had been free his entire life. He has a good family, nice home, and is respected by many of the white people he does business with. One night he was introduced to two men who showed interest in hiring him for his violin playing skills for their circus. Feeling like the dinner would only take a couple hours he goes off with the men and doesn't even tell his wife.

This decision will haunt him for the next dozen years as the men have a much sinister goal in mind. They wine and dine him and are as respectful as gentlemen could be, but once Solomon has had one too many drinks they put him up for the night in a nice bed. When he wakes up he finds himself in a jail cell, chained to the ground, and notified that he is to be sold into slavery. Yes, he has papers showing that he is a free man…at home with his wife. These men don't really care about that though. They paid the two men for him, he doesn't have papers on him at the moment (and I suppose it wouldn't matter if he did), and they've got money to make off him. He has trouble comprehending how the previous day he was a free man and today he is a slave with no rights.

He is sold to his first owner who treats him kindly and has affection for him. The owner's workers are not kind though, and Solomon stands up to them still not fully realizing the situation he has found himself in. His white masters may be dumb as bricks, but they still see themselves as better than him and will not threaten to beat him for the most trifle things. Circumstances eventually lead Solomon to be sold to a new owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cruel plantation owner who seems happiest when he's cruel. It's under his ownership that we witness whippings, rape, and gnashing of the teeth. I haven't seen such cruelty on the screen since Mel Gibson's “The Passion of the Christ” (though that is still worse). Edwin's one of those slave drivers that finds reasons to torture his “property.”

If you pick less than two hundred pounds of cotton you get whipped. Step out of line you get whipped. He does treat the women differently though, seeing that he first rapes them before they whipped. His mere presence is a terrifying one even when he doesn't do anything. Course, a lot of the movies power doesn't come from the gruesome images alone, but by the actors portraying these characters. Chiwetel Ejiofor is perfect in the starring role as a man who is forced into a terrible situation and wakes up every day not really sure how he got to the place he's at. There is nothing likable about Michael Fassbender's character, yet he captivates us in ways we couldn't have imagined. We never sense we are watching actors so much as we feel we are watching real people. Overall the acting in “12 Years a Slave” is on a whole different level than most of the other movies we've seen this year.

Come Oscar season don't be surprised if the film wins a couple of golden boys for the acting. “12 Years a Slave” is directed by Steve McQueen, a black English director. I mention this because there have been many films about slavery that have been directed by white men that feel reserved in their portrayal of the subject matter. McQueen has a fresh, brutally honest view of this black mark on our history that is so raw you can't help but feel shaken by it. Yet this is not an angry film nor is it a political one. It's a frank view on a particular time in history where humanity in general failed. By the end of the film we can see good seeds being sown, but we know it will take time for those seeds to blossom. Like most of the important films of our time “12 Years a Slave” is about helping us understand each other a little bit better, and understanding that we are all human beings at the end of the day.