You may think you know what to expect from a movie titled "12 Years a Slave." Beatings, lynchings, rape and all the brutalities we associate with American slavery are here. None of it feels familiar, however, because this time it feels as though it's happening to you.
"12 Years a Slave" is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in upstate Saratoga who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Within hours, Northup went from a well-dressed member of society -- a wife, two children, a career as a violinist -- to a subhuman beast of burden.
What follows is more than just a litany of horrors. "12 Years a Slave" works on so many levels -- some topical, some timeless -- that it's almost impossible to count them. It's an adventure movie, a hostage tale, a white-knuckle thriller, a story of triumph. Above all, it's a work of astounding artistry and relentless moral force.
After years of movies about slavery, from 1977's television landmark "Roots" to last year's cathartic "Django Unchained," it's easy to get desensitized to the topic. Not here. That's partly the result of Northup's freeborn perspective, which forces viewers of any color to step into his skin, and to Ejiofor's understated performance as a man desperately clinging to dignity. Michael Fassbender, as a sadistic Christian named Epps, and Lupita Nyong'o, as his brutalized slave Patsey, bring vivid life to the movie's topsy-turvy, morally insane world. Coloring in the backdrop is a terrific cast, including Paul Giamatti as a heartless auctioneer, Sarah Paulson as Epps' spiteful wife and Brad Pitt as a rare voice of conscience.
But the real driving forces are the deeply insightful script by John Ridley and the austere, formalist direction of Steve McQueen ("Hunger"). The movie's painterly beauty (the cinematography is by Sean Bobbitt) and highly effective use of sound -- not just Hans Zimmer's ominous score but the ghastly noises of human suffering -- will stay with you for days.
Watching "12 Years a Slave," it's impossible not to think of Nazi Germany, the Republic of Rwanda and other distant places where human beings somehow descended into madness. What "12 Years a Slave" makes mercilessly clear is that we were those people, too.
PLOT The true story of a free black man sold into slavery in 1841.
RATING R (violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)
CAST Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o, Michael Fassbender
BOTTOM LINE You won't soon forget this movie's combination of beauty, horror and triumph. Easily the year's best so far.
TWO BRITS' VIEW OF AMERICAN SLAVERY
It took two Brits -- the London-born son of Nigerian parents (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and a director whose parents were West Indian (Steve McQueen) -- to make a definitive movie about slavery in America.
"My parents are from Granada, where Malcolm X's mother was born. And my mother was born in Trinidad, where Stokely Carmichael, who coined the phrase 'Black Power,' is from," McQueen says. "Slavery wasn't just about shipping black slaves to North America. My ancestors were dropped off along the way to America. It was a global trade, with repercussions and former slaves settling all around the world. Part of that diaspora is my story."
Ejiofor, 36, was equally drawn to the story McQueen felt compelled to tell. "My family comes from the southeast of Nigeria, the Igbo Tribe," he says. "I was in Nigeria, shooting another film before making '12 Years a Slave.' The last stop I made before heading out was to the slavery museum in Calabar. You see the roll call of people, hundreds of thousands of them, taken out of Calabar. The next day, I took a flight to Louisiana, the same place many of them were sent. It was eerie, in a way."
-- McClatchy-Tribune News Service