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12 Years A Slave ****

Is it worth $10? Yes

“12 Years A Slave” isn’t just a film, it’s an essential historical document that should never be forgotten. It presents slavery at its worst and most unjust, as a state of power and proprietorship void of humanity or emotion. We shudder to think this was the norm in the South in the 1840s. Maybe it wasn’t. But the mere possibility that it could’ve been is infuriating.

Fury, as it happens, is the most likely reaction to “12 Years A Slave.” It’s unabashedly appalling. It’s one thing for the writing to depict so many atrocities of slavery, and yet another for the movie to execute them so well. Director Steve McQueen, working from a script by John Ridley, has made a near perfect film of its kind. Each moment, each dastardly action, registers with horrific impact, and the performances in roles big and small are fantastic.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man in upstate New York in 1841. He is happily married to Anne (Kelsey Scott) and has two beautiful little children (Cameron Ziegler and Quvenzhane Wallis, from “Beasts of the Southern Wild”). Solomon plays the violin, and by all accounts is quite good at it. He’s invited to Washington, D.C., to play for two weeks. He goes. After a wild night he wakes in chains and shackles, now kidnapped and about to be sold into slavery in Louisiana. It’s the kind of thing you see in a horror movie.

“I don’t want to survive, I want to live” Solomon says after he’s kidnapped, only to soon learn that keeping a low profile is his best option. After standing naked as white folks “shop” for slaves he’s sold by a proprietor ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). With Ford Solomon conflicts with Tibeats (Paul Dano), a Neanderthal moron in charge of slaves in the field. Solomon is then sold to Master Epps (Michael Fassbender), who prefers his slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) over his own wife (Sarah Paulson). Although Ford isn’t that bad (all things considered), Epps is a true monster, the type of abusive plantation owner whose slaves pick cotton and then are forced to dance for him at night. Through Solomon’s 12 years as a slave there’s no such thing as justice or fairness; Epps even uses the Bible to justify giving lashings, as if his righteous morality makes his actions okay.

The film is full of reprehensible actions, made all the worse because they’re committed by individuals who believe they have the right to treat people this way. In the business of buying and selling slaves, Freeman, who has no qualms about separating mothers from their children, says, “my sentimentality extends the length of a coin.” Solomon himself is subject to numerous injustices while incarcerated as a slave, including lashings, dehumanization, betrayal and other horrid physical abuse.

Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong’o deserve Oscars for their performances. Watch Ejiofor’s face and you’ll see the anger and pain Solomon feels at numerous moments, particularly when he sings “Roll, Jordan Roll” and later as he thinks of his family. It’s a phenomenal, lived-in performance that’ll break your heart. Fassbender successfully makes Epps one of the most hateful characters you’ll ever see on screen, genuinely believing that he has the right to do all the terrible things he does. And Nyong’o is near perfect as an innocent girl abused in all ways imaginable by Epps – your heart and mind will weep just as much for Patsey (if not more) than it does for Solomon, and that’s saying a lot.

McQueen, who is both black and British, creates a palpable immediacy with brisk editing and an unrelenting desire to force the audience to feel the awfulness of the story. “12 Years A Slave” is overwhelming, brutal, extremely difficult to sit through, and wholly unique: Rare are the times when a film moves you to a point of anger, to a point of solemn fury over the horrible things you’re seeing. Worse, you feel helpless, knowing there’s nothing you can do to address the atrocities it depicts. The fact that it’s based on a true story makes it all the more heartbreaking.

Did you know?
1) The film is based on Northup’s true story; the book of the same name was written by Northup in 1853. 2) Brad Pitt is a producer of the film; he also stars as a carpenter working in the South.