12 Years a Slave

By R. Kurt Osenlund
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 24, 2013

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Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) endures a significant alteration to his identity as a 19th-century violinist sold into slavery.

This year will go down in history as one that marked a vital leap forward for black cinema, with multiple portraits of the black experience uniquely and unflinchingly crafted by black directors.

The film that ostensibly stands at the front is the fact-based “12 Years a Slave,” a blistering snapshot of American slavery from British filmmaker Steve McQueen. Adapted from the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free New Yorker who was tricked, stripped from his family and sold as a slave in the south, the supposed Oscar front-runner is as brutal as anyone’s heard, never batting an eyelash when it comes to illustrating the great horrors of our nation’s stained past.

The sometimes tear-inducing brutality is unquestionably justified. There are sequences in this film, such as one nightmarish whipping, that may never leave one’s memory, and that’s precisely the point: This oft-glazed over shame of America’s background should be regarded, as McQueen has observed, with as much “never forget” shock and distress as the Holocaust.

And it helps that the director has cast his film impeccably. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives his nuanced all as Northup, Michael Fassbender is monstrous and pitiful as a slave owner and actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Adepero Oduye are both astounding as fellow slaves whom Northup encounters.

The trouble with the movie is McQueen is such a self-consciously artsy director that he lets his formal approach obstruct the message he’s trying to send. Too often, amid absurdly long takes or over-emphasized aural choices, it feels as though viewers aren’t just enduring the horrors of slavery, but the arduousness of McQueen’s forced technique. Many shots are among 2013’s best, but there are plenty more that could have been considerably trimmed, leaving room for deeper exploration of Solomon’s soul and the effect of his experience. How do these atrocities change a man who survives them?

And what are the emotional, human specifics of what he lost in the process? McQueen’s at-arm’s-length predilections never truly let one know.

12 Years a Slave

Two-and-a-half reels out of four
Opens tomorrow at the Ritz Five

Recommended Rental


Available Tuesday

An inventive vampire film that helps to reclaim the genre from Twi-Hards, Neil Jordan’s lush and eerie “Byzantium” focuses on a mother and daughter (Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan), who’ve lived through the ages as immortals, one fine with bloodletting, the other haunted by her plight. Distinct in its setting (which features plasma waterfalls) and its biology (these vamps have sharp nails, not teeth), the film is the perfect art-house pick for Halloween season. 

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