Notwithstanding Quentin Taratino’s morally dubious contribution via Django Unchained a year ago, Hollywood has a feeble track record when it comes to exploring the revolting history of slavery in America. Interestingly, it has taken a British director (Steve McQueen, Hunger) to deliver a clear-eyed look at a racist abomination that almost defies modern belief.
Based on the real-life memoirs of Solomon Northup, a so-called free black man who lived in New York, 12 Years A Slave begins in 1841 with his abduction and transport to Louisiana, where he is sold into slavery and endures spiritual and physical torments made so much worse by memories of his previous life (the randomness of the injustice makes it easier for audience members to identify with Solomon’s horrifying plight). I’ll spare you descriptions of the beatings and humiliations visited upon the wretched victims, only saying that McQueen portrays them unflinchingly but not excessively. He is interested in the entire culture of slavery, from the physical toil of picking cotton to the perverse relations between bible-quoting plantation owners and their slaves; and McQueen makes the point that many whites succumbed to beastliness and self-loathing, while the blacks could often endure storms of terror and brutality and retain their humanity.
Aside from its honesty, the great triumph of Slave are the performances. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things) has always had star power, but his portrayal of Northup is astonishing (as they bury a slave who was worked to death and the burial party begins to sing a spiritual, Ejiofor’s face struggles with anger and a myriad of emotions before surrendering to the moment – it’s a haunting tour de force of acting). Michael Fassbender is terrifying as a slave master with a well-deserved reputation for brutality, and Benedict Cumberbatch is even more compelling as a conflicted plantation owner who reluctantly participates in the slavery system but is too gutless to take a moral stand. Although this is an important film moreso than a great one, expect lots of Oscar nominations come January.
12 Years a slave ****
Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender
Directed by Steve McQueen
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