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article imageReview: '12 Years a Slave' is beyond brilliant Special

By Kristal Cooper     Oct 18, 2013 in Entertainment
It goes without saying that a film by Steve McQueen is going to be engrossing, astounding and occasionally almost too much to take in.
He proved his mettle as a filmmaker with his first two critically-acclaimed films Hunger and Shame. Now with 12 Years a Slave he's not only matched their intensity, but also raised the bar for himself by creating a brilliant piece of cinema that keenly exposes the horrors of the American slave trade in a way that's never been accomplished by any filmmaker before.
Crafting a film from the 1853 bestseller by Solomon Northup, McQueen along with screenwriter John Ridley, tells the story of a free man (Chiwetel Ejiofor) drugged, kidnapped and sold to human traffickers. Solomon, an educated musician, is quickly shuttled into the South and given a new name, then sold to a plantation owner. Realizing that attempting to use logic or reason to get himself out of this wretched situation will only win him a severe beating, Solomon is forced to suppress his nature and act the part of an illiterate country slave while injustice and tragedy unfurl all around him.
No longer the master of his own destiny, Solomon is shuffled from a plantation helmed by a benevolent master (played by Benedict Cumberbatch) to the home of a man named Epps (Michael Fassbender) who takes pride in his ability to break slaves. Epps is a raging drunk whose lust for a slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is a constant torment to his brittle wife (Sarah Paulson). Solomon is unwittingly drawn into the sadistic triangle as he attempts to protect Patsy while also looking for any small chance in the disarray of the house to get a message to his family up north.
If the film sounds harrowing and tough to watch, that's because it is. What sets it apart from other films about horrifying real life injustices is McQueen's removed style and cool, discerning eye which doesn't allow any room for melodrama or manufactured heartstring-tugging. He works in long, unflinching takes that allows the audience to settle into the scenes with the characters, letting the emotion of what's going on seep into your psyche and stay there. Needless to say, 12 Years a Slave is film that will stay with you for a long, long time.
It's also important to note that while the film frankly examines the consequences of the slave trade on an entire race of people, it also takes the provocative stance that slavery has a dehumanizing effect on the oppressor as much as it does the oppressed. It's a bold tack to take, and makes for a film that feels like a thorough exploration of the subject matter rather than just a recounting of grisly events.
Adding to the film's flawless execution is the impressive cast that McQueen has assembled. Ejiofor speaks volumes with his silence and wide-eyed gaze filled with turmoil, agony and barely repressed rage while Fassbender manages to transform what could have easily been a one-note character into a monster peppered with glimpses of humanity. Newcomer Nyong'o is a revelation as a woman who refuses to allow her appalling circumstances to suppress her innate tenacity and the always reliable Paulson is chilling. Even the actors only featured for mere moments in the film are perfectly cast and authentic in a way that demonstrates McQueen's very specific vision for his film.
12 Years a Slave is a breath-taking, blistering classic-in-the-making that's easily one of the -- if the not the best -- films of the year. It deserves every trophy it will invariably take home this award season.
12 Years a Slave opens on October 18, 2013.
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