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With: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Adepero Oduye, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy, Michael Kenneth Williams, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp, QuvenzhanŽ Wallis
Written by: John Ridley, based on a book by Solomon Northup
Directed by: Steve McQueen
MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Running Time: 133
Date: 10/18/2013

12 Years a Slave (2013)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Subject of Subjugation

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Steve McQueen is a brilliant person and a fascinating artist. He approaches filmmaking patiently, taking time to explore certain individual scenes. He's also very serious. Never has a smile or a moment of levity cracked through a single second of a McQueen film. Thus, his films require a delicate balance.

His first feature, Hunger, was an uncomfortable experience, but tickled the intelligence with an amazing, 20-minute, unbroken shot of a conversation, juxtaposed with the rest of the film's quiet brutality. His second feature, Shame, based on a wounded character, suffering from sex addiction, drew a bit closer to an emotional center; it was a bit more touching.

Now comes 12 Years a Slave, and though it's a pinnacle of nobility, it seems to me the least of these three movies. Like Hunger, it's unrelenting, but without any kind of respite. And unlike Shame, it doesn't allow for much emotional connection to the character. We can pity him, but we can't feel what he feels. (How could we?) However, McQueen's seriousness and patience are still something to admire. And I do believe that this movie could be a useful classroom tool for those studying America's shameful slavery days.

12 Years a Slave is based on a book -- published in 1853 -- whose very existence is remarkable. The writer, Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), was a free black man living in New York. When his wife and children take a trip for several weeks, he agrees to play violin for a band of traveling thespians, hoping to collect a paycheck. Instead, he finds himself sold as a slave. Most of his twelve years are spent toiling for a sadistic master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is irresistibly, sexually drawn to the beautiful Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, in a breakout performance), but also takes out his fury on her.

Sarah Paulson is quite good in her few scenes as the wife of Epps, aware of his weaknesses and increasingly scornful. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a more benevolent master who allows Solomon to continue to play music, but an unfortunate incident terminates their time together. Paul Giamatti gives a startling performance as a heartless slave trader. Paul Dano plays another in a series of sniveling creeps, and Brad Pitt -- who also co-produced the movie -- plays the movie's kindest and most forward-thinking white man.

McQueen attempts several individual scenes designed to be standouts. One, in which an attempt to hang Solomon goes wrong, is excruciating. He keeps himself from death only by balancing the tips of his boots on the muddy ground; McQueen lets the shot go on for ages, with Solomon rasping and choking at the rope. In another, Epps catches Solomon trying to send a letter and confronts him in the dark, the scene entirely lit by a lantern held between them.

But perhaps the most striking moment, for me, comes nearly at the end after the Pitt character has agreed to take a letter to Solomon's family. The camera simply looks at Solomon's face for a long while. There's no way of knowing exactly what he's thinking, and we're allowed to explore his face and eyes, reflecting on all that has been and all that could have been.

Yet it's hard to rave much about this cold, somber work, which would perhaps be more at home in a museum than in a multiplex. Personally, I never need to see it again, and I consider the mark of a great film one which you can see any number of times. Moreover, I can't see myself enthusiastically recommending it to anyone. If you already plan to see it, more power to you. If you don't want to see it, I don't blame you. If you're on the fence, here's my review.

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