12 Years a Slave (2013): Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael K. Williams, Michael Fassbender, Adepero Oduye, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt - 4 Stars
12 Years a Slave is a brutal depiction of man's inhumanity to man. The evil it took to treat a fellow man with such violence is mentally incomprehensible. The fact that the story is almost entirely true is indeed graphically horrifying. 12 Years a Slave, written by Solomon Northrup in 1853 is a autobiography that takes place in antebellum United States. The film opens with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejofor) as a free and respectable black man living in upstate New York, educated, a part-time violinist, who is abducted by a couple of flim flam con men and sold into slavery in the south. This is Solomon's story.
After a night of wine and dinner with the scheming hustlers Solomon awakens to find himself in shackles on a prison floor. He is transported by ship to the south to be sold into slavery along with others that are free or not free. Solomon is sold to several plantation masters throughout the film. The first is William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), seemingly charitable, selects Solomon now named Plack, by the twisted slave trader, Freeman (Paul Giamatti). In the process, Ford try's to buy Eliza (Adepero Oduye) with both her children which is against Freeman's money swindling plan. It is brutal to watch. Ford fails for lack of money and Eliza is separated from her children forever which creates a justifiably cinematic theme of despair and melancholy. Eliza lacks the will to survive whereas Plack's goal is to overcome any obstacle, to survive and to be reunited with his family. Of course, there is a vile and hated overseer who is envious of Plack's engineering and educated background, Tibeats (Paul Dano) who compels Ford to sell Plack, in order to save him from death, to the villainous cotton farmer Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps, is a craven and insane alcoholic with a envious and jealous wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson - American Horror Story). These two are repugnant human beings perform shocking violent acts from whipping, knife chasing and throwing objects. Epps is obsessed with Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) and makes her life a living hell. Plack lives by a moral code of honor whereas the Epps embodies darkness and malevolence. Relationships are heavily explored in the film ranging from master and mistress versus slave, master versus mistress, slave versus slave and workers versus slave. Epps is diabolical in every scene from forcing the slaves to dance in the deep of night after back breaking cotton picking along with beast like whipping during the day that is unbearable to watch. He is a vicious snake with one goal to dominate all with the words of God. It was unfathomable how the twisted plantation owners would give sermons from the Bible on Sunday's about God's goodness after participating in whipping, flaying and defiling the slaves.
Plack valiantly struggles to be hopeful throughout the film even when mayhem is all around. He is savvy and intelligent to pick his battles and prevail though eventually disparity from such evil and vicious acts permeates his soul. Then along comes Bass, a free man (Brad Pitt) who works at building a house along with Solomon for Epps. Bass helps to free Solomon by contacting his friends in the North. There is a poignant scene in the film with Plack's face focused directly into the camera as he realizes someone finally believes in him and is willing to help. The audience feels the deep emotions. When the northern gentlemen arrive to save Solomon moviegoers are at last filled with a moment of light. The final act when Solomon is reunited with his family fills the heart with happiness and yet incredible sadness all at once.
The acting is powerful and mesmerizing by both Ejiofor and Fasbender. Pitt's performance is minor. The movie is directed by Steve McQueen who is apparently renowned for video artistry. Herein lies the difficulty in analyzing the film. The composition between the beautiful still shots of nature in the south is in stark contrast to the story unfolding before the eyes on screen. The film is compelling, moving and artistically stunning all the while focusing on the most heinous period of history in the United States. So immersed in the film does the audience become that one cannot help but visually recall the Tree of Life (2011) nature scenes directed by Terrace Malick with the same film artistry. The coldness versus warmth, good versus evil and simple versus complex.
12 Years a Slave is a film that will not be forgotten and is one that is thought provoking, evokes strong emotions and touches on themes of hope versus disparity, good versus evil, love versus hate and the will to live versus death. This is one man's sad and gruesome tale where there isn't retribution as there was in the fictional Django Unchained (2012). The film is a must see though eyes might be occasionally shut with gritted teeth except that the ears will hear everything and imagination will complete the imagery. The ending leaves the audience with mixed emotions, deep unfettered sadness and tears for Solomon, his family and for all the others that never obtained freedom. And, lastly wondering how in God's green earth can man's inhumanity to man ever be possible. One of the best movies of 2013.
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