'12 Years A Slave' review: Unflinching condemnation of America's first sin
What this horrific true story lacks in narrative structure, it makes up with a profound focus on the evils of slavery.
In short: The true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York, who is abducted and sold into slavery. (watch the trailer)
The most unsettling aspect of '12 Years a Slave' is not the brutal violence or degradation inflicted upon slaves - this film reveals how institutionalized sin can warp society and destroy men.
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The fact that Northup is a 'free' black man living in the north is almost incidental (although it does provide the basic narrative framework). He is ripped from his life as a family man working an honest job and turned into a piece of property with a price tag. Northup's story puts a very human, sympathetic face on the cruelties inflicted upon blacks.
The strongest aspect of '12 Years' could also be its easiest to criticize: this film has the most minimal of narrative - instead, it's a damning account of the atrocities subjected to black slaves.
While Northup brainstorms ways to escape his hell and staves off soul-crushing despair, he witnesses and experiences the worst inhumanities of slavery. '12 Years' is unflinching in its presentation of violence against slaves - everything from casual, evil racist comments to the execution of escaped slaves. It holds painfully long takes that accentuate the true horrors, forcing viewers to watch as slaves are beaten and tortured.
For example: one particularly long take focuses on a character who barely survives an attempted hanging. Although he is 'rescued' and still alive, he is left to struggle with a noose around his neck. He is only able to catch breathes whenever he can plant his toes in the soft mud below him. This shot goes on and on and on ... and it's very effective in letting the horrors of slavery sink in.
The complexity of the slave culture represented in this film also saves '12 Years a Slave' from descending into preachy territory. This movie isn't as simple as 'black characters good and white characters are evil' - much of this film is spent in the grey area. Some characters are clearly evil or good, many more are simply trying to survive - leading some to do what's necessary to avoid a whipping or leading 'nice' characters to become complicit in the sin of slavery.
At the very core of '12 Years a Slave' is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who deserves every award season accolade he will receive during the lead up to the Oscars. His gradual transformation from a proper, upright free man to a downcast, downtrodden slave is absolutely extraordinary. He is the heart and soul of Northup's hard-to-watch journey.
Just about every aspect of '12 Years a Slave' is tough to watch. Even the final resolution is painful. But this film is most effective when it reveals the routine indignities doled out to slaves.
Director Steve McQueen makes the physical violence difficult to watch, but it's the erosion of hope that is most disheartening. While bodies can heal from even the worst beatings, McQueen's focus on the psychological breakdown of slavery is what makes '12 Years' profound.
Final verdict: '12 Years a Slave' is not simply one of the very best movies of this year - it is an essential film that should be required viewing for all Americans.