The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen may be the most fearless filmmaker working today. He is unafraid of tough subject matter. His debut picture, 2008's Hunger, was about a real-life hunger strike in an Irish prison. Three years later, he gifted us with Shame, the NC-17 sex addiction drama that remains one of the most insightful films ever made about compulsive, self-destructive behavior. Now McQueen brings the slavery drama 12 Years a Slave. There have been other movies about this shameful part of America's past. Many of them have been extremely difficult to watch. This one is downright brutal, although that's a vital part of what makes it such a powerful, important work.

Based on a true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living with his wife and two children in upstate New York. A gifted musician, Solomon is hired by two men to go on tour. They lure him to Washington, where he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He ends up in New Orleans with a generally benevolent master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and is later sold to the much less benevolent Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps has an extremely hostile wife (Sarah Paulson) who resents her husband's sexual attraction to a female slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). During an ordeal that stretches on for years and requires both watching and enduring a number of atrocities, Solomon attempts to make contact with people who could help him regain his freedom.

12 Years a Slave shows many of the physical abuses suffered by slaves: whippings, lynchings, rape. Just as intensely, it shows the psychological abuse. Solomon, eventually given the name Platt, has to hide his education and skills in order to survive. When he first attempts to identify himself, he's beaten mercilessly; slave owners resent the thought that their “property” might be intelligent enough to find a way to leave. The film shows how this quite literally traps Solomon, robbing him of the one thing that ostensibly should be able to liberate him. Additionally, 12 Years very effectively conveys the torment that assessing his current situation causes him. Once upon a time, he was living free with his family, whereas now, he's subjected to the whims of sadistic plantation owners and their associates.

McQueen makes very effective use of long, unbroken shots to accentuate both the physical and psychological tortures. Scenes involving whipping look real because there's no flinching, no breaking away from the image. Similarly, he occasionally utilizes an extended close-up of Solomon's face as he reacts to his surroundings. Chiwetel Ejiofor does phenomenal work in these moments, conveying the full horror of the character's disbelief in how dramatically his life has changed for the worse. This is a career-best performance from an always-reliable actor. Together, director and star create a powerfully troubling look at the trauma of slavery. Whereas many movies approach slavery from a historical angle, 12 Years approaches it from a deeply personal perspective.

Every supporting performance helps add to the cumulative impact of the story. Fassbender oozes self-loathing sadism, Paulsen embodies vile self-entitlement, Nyong'o provides a heartbreaking sense of dignity being stripped away, and Brad Pitt (as an enlightened laborer who takes an interest in Solomon) nicely represents the open-mindedness that eventually helped get slavery abolished. Together, they make 12 Years a Slave the kind of movie where you can't help mentally putting yourself in Solomon Northup's place, imagining all the shock and terror and grief you'd feel if your freedom was suddenly taken from you.

All this may sound like a downer, but perhaps the thing that resonates most is the theme of perseverance. The superb acting, the nuanced direction, the detailed script (by John Ridley), and the stunning cinematography all combine to tell the story of a man who knows he will perish the moment he abandons hope. Through a number of unfathomable challenges and tragedies, he keeps holding on. 12 Years a Slave isn't always easy to sit through, but it is most definitely a vital and profound motion picture.

( out of four)

12 Years a Slave is rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. The running time is 2 hours and 13 minutes.

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