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Movie Review: '12 Years a Slave'

By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) -- "I don't want to survive," says the downtrodden and persecuted central character of 12 Years a Slave, "I want to live."  But he's got to do the former in order to do the latter.

He's Solomon Northup, a freeborn African-American sold into bondage in this startling and disturbing period drama about savagery and injustice.

12 Years a Slave tells Northup's true slavery story.  He's the well-to-do, violin-playing husband and father in Sarasota Springs, NY who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold to a sadistic slave owner in Louisiana, where he picked cotton, chopped timber, and cut sugarcane in well-over-100-degree heat, while suffering unspeakable indignities -– all of which he detailed in his nightmarish 1853 memoir.

(4 stars out of 4!)

His unimaginable ordeal begins a few years before the start of the Civil War, when he is drugged after a musical performance in Washington, DC.  He awakens in chains and is forced to adopt the identity of "Platt," ostensibly an escaped Georgia runaway, thereafter to hide his literacy, forget his skills, endure beatings and lashings while living with a constant threat of violence that's a lot more than just a threat, and follow orders in order to survive as he goes from owner to owner, each barbaric or insensitive in a different way.

He'll need enough determination to get back to his loved ones to overcome the overwhelming hopelessness that is sure to set in.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Northup, Paul Giammati a slave trader, Benedict Cumberbatch his first owner, Michael Fassbender a cotton plantation owner, Sarah Paulson his calculating wife, Alfre Woodward a plantation mistress, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o a beautiful field slave, and Brad Pitt (also one of the producers, as is director Steve McQueen) an itinerant Canadian abolitionist.

British director McQueen (Shame, Hunger) works from a tension-sustained screenplay by John Ridley based on the same-name best-seller by Northup that doesn't preach or lecture because it doesn't have to:  events speak for themselves.

Cruelty, anguish, evil, and the erosion of human dignity are everywhere, so it's important that McQueen not sugarcoat at all. And he doesn't, which makes the film difficult to watch at times, but urgently and breathlessly compelling throughout.

The cast is exemplary, especially Ejiofor in a brilliant, Oscar nomination-worthy lead performance that his already impressive career has been leading up to, with his necessarily taciturn character experiencing pain and suffering and humiliation to an astonishing degree.

McQueen regular Fassbender and Kenyan newcomer Nyong'o are similarly consummate in support.

As we watch, horrified, the realization that the shameful situation being dramatized was not uncommon hits like a sledgehammer.  Because the film is not about what this character went through but what many victims did during a dark period in our history.

And one would have been far too many.

With The Butler, Fruitvale Station, and 12 Years a Slave opening within the same three-month period, this has been a strong season for artful, indelible, painful considerations of race in this country.  And 12 is the most harrowing and wrenching corrective of the bunch, a movie that will change forever the way we see other movies about slavery that have emerged from Hollywood.

So we'll endure all 4 stars out of 4 for this unblinking, visceral, transcendent fact-based drama.  12 Years a Slave is important and sickening and powerful -- the stuff that nightmares are made of.

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