In 1977, the miniseries “Roots” mesmerized a nation, splashing the reality of slavery on the television screen.
“12 Years a Slave” might be the best and most vivid screen portrayal of our great national disgrace since.
The movie tells the real-life tale of Solomon Northup, a cultured, well-dressed, talented free man living in Saratoga in 1841.
When Northup leaves his family for a two-week trip to play violin at a circus in Washington, D.C., he thinks he’s just earning some extra money. Instead, he’s about to lose his identity as a human being.
Northup is drugged, chained and sent off to a slave auction in Louisiana. He’s forced to labor for a variety of owners over the next dozen years, subject to beatings and torture and never allowed to use his real name or even let on that he can read and write.
Gifted Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Serenity”) will be unappreciated no longer after his mesmerizing performance as Solomon. Though Northup is often too scared to put his real feelings into words, Ejiofor is able to convey pride and fear nonetheless, with his eyes or a furrowed brow or a shift of his body.
It’s a brilliant, nuanced portrayal that carries the entire film and will not be forgotten at Oscar time.
English director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) doesn’t overly dramatize the proceedings, nor does he have to. He simply shows us the day-to-day nightmare of Solomon’s existence, and that of those around him.
Without melodrama, he makes the shameful era of slavery somehow feel even worse because it’s experienced by a man who previously knew nothing but freedom.
Though Ejiofor is the headliner, the film leaves room for some other strong performances. Benedict Cumberbatch is a benevolent plantation owner, who nonetheless sells Solomon to the twisted and cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Best of these is from newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave who, much to her detriment, becomes the apple of Epps’s malevolent eye.
The film effectively tells an extraordinary and tragic story. It’s somber and brutal — extremely difficult to watch at times.
It’s nowhere near as violent as Quentin Tarantino’s entertaining revenge fantasy “Django Unchained,” but its violence is far more jolting because of the film’s realism. We almost feel every lash of the whip.
“12 Years a Slave” is an important movie and also an excellent one.
Rental Recommendation: Ejiofor got his first break in Steven Spielberg’s 1997 slave revolt film “Amistad.” Grade: B+.
Email Steve Ouellette: email@example.com
12 Years a Slave
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt
Rated: R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality)
Running time: 134 minutes