Sunday, March 9, 2014

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave

Genre: historical drama
Director: Steve McQueen
Rating: **** (4 out of 5)

By now you must have heard: 12 Years a Slave won best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. The historical drama by British director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) lays bare the blood, sweat and tears of Southern slavery in the mid-19th Century, and all the terror and inhumanity that came with it.

12 Years a Slave by Steve McQueen

The film is an adaptation of the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. There, he worked on various plantations for 12 years before he was finally rescued and returned to his family in the North. Northup’s accounts were so gruesome that they would make Stephen King’s horror novel Misery read like Dr. Seuss.

Nigerian-British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the protagonist Northup with conviction and authenticity. Every whiplash he takes, every backbreaking day he gets through, and every rape and murder he witnesses shows up on his face. Our hearts sink with his each time an attempt to escape fails. We feel his anguish and restraint in trying to maintain a quiet dignity in the face of gross injustice. 

Northup's memoir

Ejiofor is supported by a talented cast, including Irish-German actor Michael Fassbender who plays a drunken, sexually frustrated slave owner, and Kenyan-born actress Lupita Nyong'o, a first-time actress who won an Oscar for her supporting role in the film. The only exception to the otherwise impeccable cast is Brad Pitt. Sporting an uneven Southern accent and shoulder-length golden locks that drape to his shoulders, Pitt sounds and looks out of place playing a free-thinking laborer from Canada who eventually saves the day.

12 Years a Slave is neither the best movie in 2013 nor the best slavery movie ever made. But it is a strong contender in both categories. It is an uncompromising – but at times overly indulgent   portrayal of the suffering of a people who built a nation but reaped none of the rewards. In the process, the movie has made international stars of Ejiofor and Nyong'o, who will no doubt go on to make other great movies when the right scripts come along.

Fassbender (left) opposite Nyong'o (middle) and Ejiofor

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