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Movie Review: '12 Years a Slave'

12 Years a Slave

Starring Chiwetel Ojiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt
Directed by Steve McQueen
Rated R

Last year, when Django Unchained was released, it made people flinch a little bit.  Because not only had Quentin Tarantino given us a movie that could easily be identified as one of his own, but he also wrapped it around the subject of slavery in the south.  It was a subject that while still keeping true to his form, didn’t hold back when giving us a snapshot (both in words and images) of life in the south during the 1800’s.   But Tarantino is a commercial filmmaker and fully knowing his place and what that means in terms of box office, kept things from getting too real.   Steve McQueen, the director of the slightly uncomfortable to watch Shame, has come back and given us what Django Unchained didn’t, a truer eye on the brutality that was slavery in the south.

12 Years a Slave is a huge leap forward for McQueen.  And while it’s a film that doesn’t set itself up for repeated viewings like Django, it nonetheless should be a film that you see.   Make no mistake though,  12 Years is a brutal film to watch.  Not only for the scenes of violence, but for the humiliation factor that McQueen and company don’t even try to sidestep and thank God they didn't.  Without out, you lose some of the power that comes with trying to accurately portray something we have only read about in books (or seen in lesser films/tv program.  It will be interesting to see how this movie fares come awards season, especially in the acting category, because there is one person who deserves the Oscar...and it's not the guy on the poster.  Although, he's pretty damn good as well.

The movie tells the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ojiofor), a musician (violin) and more importanly, free man living with his family in Saratoga New York.  During a trip to Washington, under the guise that he taking a gig working for a carnival, Northup is kidnapped and sold to a slave trader in Louisiana.  Thus begins his harrowing 12 year affair as a slave.  Solomon knows that in order to make it out alive, he has to play the game, which takes him to a plantation owned by Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who shows kindness to Solomon.  But a altercation with one of the platnation overseer's, Tibeats (Paul Dano), forces Ford to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man who shows no absolutely no compassion.  But it's during his time on Epps planation that Solomon meets a Canadian abolintionist, Bass (Brad Pitt), who ultimately helps Solomon become a free man again. 

The movie greatest asset, besides it's very realistic approach to the subject matter, is in the acting. Prisoners is the only other movie this year comes close to boasting such great performances. Performances that avoid falling into cliches that have been a embarrasing trait for films of this nature. The all feel so real.  Ejiofor really gives up everything in his performance, letting you feel the pain that he is going through.  I don't think my words can really do what he does in this movie justice.   But the man who really stands above all, is Fassbender.  As Epps, he, more so than, say, Dicaprio in Django, gives an unflinching look at a man who uses his power to such a ugly effect.  Fassbender, just like Ejiofor, doesn't hold back with anything in his performance and I'm calling it right now, he'll win the Oscar for best supporting actor.  You heard it here first...or second..or third...whatever.  But Paul Dano to Paul Giamatti (as the slave trader) to Sarah Paulson (as Epps equally unrelenting and ugly wife).  They are all so good. Those performances are also a testament to how good McQueen is and how his actors trust him to not make them look like fools.

The only problem I had with 12 Years a Slave comes with the script and the story, or lack thereof.  That may seem like a ridiculous statement for a movie that deals with one man's 12 year struggle and ultimate redemption.  For as good as each scene is for what it depicts, the movie just feels like a bunch of scenes that really don't build on each other. Solomon at times feels like a bystander in his own movie as he knows all too wel the danger of stepping out of line (something that he learns during his altercation with Tibeats).  That's both a good thing and a bad thing, especially when building a 2 hour movie.   Pitt's Bass character, even being a real character who helped Northrup, almost feels like it was put in on purpose to give Solomon and his situation closure and this is based on the lack of build up to Solomon becoming free.  But even with my gripe, the movie totally makes up for in so many other areas that the gripe becomes less and less.

12 Years a Slave is starting to expand to more theaters across the country. Do yourself a solid and see it when it comes to your neck of the woods.  If you need further convincing, this is first movie I've seen this year where to audience cheered at the end.  For all it's truthfull ugliness, the admiration for what everyone put into this movie doesn't go unnoticed. 

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