12 Years A Slave
Solomon Northup is a happy fellow. He lives a comfortable existence with his wife and two children in Saratoga, New York, in the mid-1800s. He has a musical gift for playing the violin. He is happy. He is loved. He is free.
That all changes one day when he encounters two men claiming to be from a travelling circus. With the offer of making good money playing music with the show, Solomon agrees to accompany the men to the next stop on their tour: Washington, DC. After a celebratory dinner and many, many drinks, Solomon wakes up in chains in a dirty cellar, where two white men savagely beat and humiliate him. Solomon Northup is a free man no longer. He is a slave.
So begins Solomon's, who has been renamed Pratt, twelve years as one of the many slaves on a rich, Southern plantation. As one of the plantation slaves, he is brutally and mercilessly beaten, whipped, forced to pick cotton in the fields all day and strung up by his neck for long, torturous hours with no water. In Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave," based on the memoir by Solomon himself, antebellum slavery is depicted in all of its bare horror. This is one of the most brutal and uncomfortable movies I have ever seen.
It's also excellent for that very same reason. Slavery in the South during the mid-1800s was not pretty, not at all, and this movie does not gloss over or sugarcoat any of the frightening, shocking specifics of day-to-day plantation life. It is real, it is cruel, it is ugly. McQueen and his actors bring Solomon's story to life with every gruesome detail intact. The audience feels helpless as these men and women are subjected to horror after horror that their "masters" inflict upon them.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is magnificent as Solomon, a proud man who, nevertheless, is confused as to why he is even a slave in the first place -- he is a free man! Solomon is proud, but simply trying to survive within his circumstances. Michael Fassbender creates a villain in plantation owner Mr. Epps as terrifying as any ever put on screen. This man is drunk with power and privilege, using whips and fists without even a second thought. Sarah Paulson matches Fassbender evil for evil as the mistress of the house, especially in her behavior toward Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a beautiful young slave who Mr. Epps takes a fancy to.
The movie is full of exemplary acting, not only from Ejiofor, Fassbender, Paulson and Nyong'o, but also from the entire cast across the board (including cameos by Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and producer Brad Pitt). This is not a pleasant story to tell, but it's one that needs to be told, and all of the actors deliver. John Ridley's script has a natural sound and flows freely from the mouths of the characters in the story. It almost doesn't sound like a script, but as though the characters are truly talking to each other. All of the below-the-line credits, including Hans Zimmer's score, are top-notch.
When all is said and done, "12 Years A Slave" is an unpleasant movie about an ugly time in American history. And if you can stomach it, see it.