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Movie review: Extraordinary ‘12 Years a Slave’ examines slavery’s shame

The extraordinary “12 Years a Slave” thrusts its lead character (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and the audience into slavery’s moral and psychological morass more fully and directly than any movie before it.

Based on the personal account of Solomon Northup, a free man from upstate New York who in 1841 was kidnapped and spent a dozen years in slavery, “12 Years” allows the audience no distance, no remove.

Solomon knows as much about slavery as the viewer does before he experiences it, so its attendant horrors, and the small gains he can manage inside a horribly rigged system, feel as fresh to viewers as they do to him. Such proximity inspires compassion and outrage in equal doses.

Enabling this proximity is British director Steve McQueen’s ( “Hunger,” “Shame” ) clear-eyed approach, which is free of the gothic melodrama that decorates most antebellum tales like so much Spanish moss. Written for the screen by John Ridley, “12 Years” was adapted from Northup’s 1853 book about his experiences, a tale so horrifying it needs no embellishment.

McQueen starts with a foundation of great period specificity, shooting on real Louisiana plantations like those where Solomon worked. Solomon’s formal speech – he drops the verb “luxuriate” in regular conversation – reflects his status as a cultured mid-19th century man who can read and write and who plays the violin for his living.

The gentlemanly, jovial interactions among Solomon and two white men (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) who enlist him to travel to Washington, D.C., to play music make the men’s subsequent betrayal all the more chilling.

Solomon awakes, after a night spent drinking with them, in chains in a cell-like room. The men are gone, replaced by slave traders far more open in their callousness.

Recourse for Solomon, who has no way to contact family or friends, is virtually nonexistent. The more he protests, the more likely he will be met with fists or worse.

Violence, in practice and threat, pervades “12 Years.” But the violence is not exploitative. It is simply laid bare, its power derived from its straightforward immediacy.

McQueen, a video artist with an art-world background, composes painterly shots throughout “12 Years,” including one in which Solomon endures great pain for a sustained period of time, as plantation business continues around him. This scene illustrates how much this man’s life means to him and how little it means in the context of where he is.

Some have questioned whether “12 Years,” which has generated strong box office numbers in limited release, might be too brutal for the larger audience. Given that Quentin Tarantino’s more brutal slave-revenge fantasy “Django Unchained” cleaned up at the U.S. box office last year, the true concern appears to be that “12 Years” is too real. Too under the top.

Perhaps it’s easier to confront this terrible chapter in U.S. history via “Django’s” mustache-twirling villains and Jamie Foxx’s gun-toting former slave. Or through a historical drama, like Steven Spielberg’s white-men-centric “Lincoln,” that mimics the U.S. history books of our youths by omitting the first-person slave experience.

But the popularity of recent films such as “The Help,” “Fruitvale Station” and “The Butler” suggest audiences, perhaps buoyed by life under an African American U.S. president and the freedom of discussion such a milestone encourages, are receptive to all aspects of the African American experience, even the most painful ones.

McQueen and his cast infuse “12 Years” not just with pain but with tremendous insight into the pathology of slavery. Radiating intelligence, Ejiofor (“Kinky Boots,” “Children of Men”) embodies a character who is both a keen sufferer and sharp observer. Solomon becomes our guide to his own terrible odyssey and to the wider-ranging psychological damage, to black and white characters, of an economy built on inhumanity.

In an early scene in which Solomon, a husband and father, moves freely on the streets of his northern hometown, Ejiofor displays good humor and ease of a man convinced justice exists in the world.

That sense of justice, remarkably, will survive Solomon’s quick, post-kidnapping recognition that he no longer is viewed as a man but as property. It will withstand the subsequent moral compromises he makes to stay alive on a plantation run by a madman named Epps (Michael Fassbender, also star of “Hunger” and “Shame”).

Solomon is not the classic, wronged, noble hero but someone more realistic, a man trying to keep as much of his soul as possible in impossible circumstances. From the start of his time in slavery, Solomon must suppress key parts of himself, including his literacy.

A slave able to read threatens a plantation’s status quo because it gives him more resources for possible escape and belies the myth of plantation owners’ intellectual superiority.

But even as Solomon tamps down part of his nature, Ejiofor never plays him as defeated. Solomon is watchful, quietly poised to act when he sees opportunities to state his case and possibly regain his freedom.

Solomon first is sent to a plantation owned by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who recognizes and encourages Solomon’s musical talents. Solomon sadly believes he can appeal to Ford, sophisticate to sophisticate, with his story. But such truths will not lessen the payments on the loan Ford took out to bring Solomon to his plantation.

Though “owning” humans appears to twist Ford’s gut, he does not want to challenge an entrenched economic system. Yet the glimmers of humanity in Cumberbatch’s performance are welcome, as is the kindness shown by a visiting carpenter played by Brad Pitt. Without such slivers of light, Solomon’s perseverance would seem tragic instead of admirable.

If the sickness of slavery threatens Ford’s mental health, it has overtaken that of cotton farmer Epps, on whose plantation Solomon will spend most of his time in slavery.

Fassbender exhibits constant emotional tumult regarding his character’s obsession with a beautiful field hand named Patsey (feature-film newcomer Lupita Nyong’o). By day he praises Patsey’s performance in the field (she outpicks the men) and by night sexually assaults her.

This conflict-roiled man, based on a real person, is more believable and therefore far scarier than Leonardo DiCaprio’s sadistic slaveholder in “Django.”

Nyong’o is quietly heartbreaking as a woman unable to escape abuse no matter how hard she works. Patsey must face not only Epps’ unwavering focus but his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) jealousy.

Though Fassbender plays Epps as too far gone to pretend to be a gentleman, Mary Epps, in her fancy dresses, represents the façade of civility standing like the columns fronting antebellum homes.

Paulson’s expressive eyes reveal the disdain Mary feels for the slaves, her husband and herself for participating in a system that appears to alternately attract and repulse her. She has little excuse for her own abusive behavior, since she’s saner and smarter than her husband.

Solomon also is smarter than Epps, and often can either outrun or out-think him. But he sees his friend Patsey’s will to live eroding, and it troubles him.

Ejiofor and Nyong’o express their characters’ mutual understanding with few words. Solomon and Patsey each recognizes in the other an exceptional person arbitrarily deemed a commodity.

McQueen’s first two features confronted uncomfortable subjects – IRA prisoner Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in “Hunger” and a New York City man’s sex addiction in the NC-17 rated “Shame” – provocatively but often in the abstract. McQueen surrounded, rather than hit, his stories’ target.

“12 Years” hits it directly, and the result is a film of resounding emotional power. “12 Years” ends McQueen’s status as artful director of thoughtful films. He’s now simply a great director.

12 YEARS A SLAVE

* * * * 

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano

Director: Steve McQueen

134 minutes

Rated R (violence/cruelty, some nudity, brief sexuality)

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