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‘12 Years a Slave’: About bravery, full of brave performances

‘12 YEARS A SLAVE’ ★★★★

Solomon Northup Chiwetel Ejiofor

Edwin Epps Michael Fassbender

Ford Benedict Cumberbatch

Patsy Lupita Nyong’o

Armsby Garret Dillahunt

Fox Searchlight presents a film directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup. Running time: 134 minutes. Rated R (for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality). Opens Friday at local theaters.

It's about respecting people's dignity, says Chiwetel Ejiofor

Updated: November 19, 2013 6:10AM

Of all the unforgettable moments in “12 Years a Slave”’ — all the shocking reminders of the horrors of slavery, as well as all the victories large and small achieved by a great man who overcame unspeakable injustice — the quietest scene is the one that sears the memory.

Solomon Northup is a slave in the American South in the 1840s. The monster who owns him believes Solomon has disrespected him, and for that Solomon must be punished.

Doesn’t matter who’s wrong and who’s right. In that place and that time, there was only one side to every story.

A thick rope hanging from a low tree branch is draped around Solomon’s neck, and then tightened just to the point where he can barely breathe.

I’m not going to delve further into what happens after that, other than to say this dialogue-free scene, set against the backdrop of a glorious day (weatherwise), might well move you to tears. That single scene does more to bring home the horrific realities of slavery than has many a complete film on the subject.

“12 Years a Slave” is a film about great bravery, featuring some of the bravest performances you’ll ever have the privilege to witness.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is the heart and center of the story, and his is a performance worthy of awards. But there are others whose work is equally invaluable.

Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who is one of the most hateful characters since Ralph Fiennes’ Nazi officer Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List.” In the ugliest of ironies, his name is Freeman, and he is a loathsome, boisterous, slick-talking snake who lines up chained men, women and children in a parlor and casually separates mothers from daughters, husbands from wives, as he slaps them around, checks their teeth as if they were horses and bargains for the best price.

Giamatti doesn’t play Freeman as a monster; he plays him as a man who is thoroughly convinced blacks are subhuman. That’s what makes the work so chilling.

Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch play plantation owners who thrive on the sweat and bowed backs of slaves. One comes closer to showing genuine compassion than the other, but both are cowards.

Fine work by fine actors.

(Not all of the white characters in “12 Years a Slave” are villains. Solomon has friends in upstate New York who never stopped looking for him. There’s another key white character who believes all men and women should be free, and he’s not just talk.)

Many others, including Adepero Oduye and Lupita Nyong’o, bring great passion to their performances. Nyong’o’s Patsy is a beautiful, smart, independent spirit who fights to keep her identity even as she’s subjected to daily cruelty from the plantation owner who’s obsessed with her, and his wife, who if anything is even more despicable.

But this is primarily the story of Solomon Northup, and it is inspired by true events, and you will be astonished by those events.

Chiwetel Ejiofor is one of the most consistent actors in the world, and he gives perhaps his most impressive performance yet playing a man whose real-life nightmare sounds like something out of the “Twilight Zone.”

Flourishing as a learned, accomplished family man and musician in New York State in the 1840s, Solomon Northup was kidnapped and shipped to the South, where he was beaten, given a new name and forced into slavery.

This is no “Gone With the Wind” fairy tale or “Django Unchained” revenge fantasy. We see the Southern plantations as what they really were — slave labor prison camps. Solomon’s fellow captors tell him if he wants to live, he should tell no one he can read and write and make no claims about his previous existence. You cause trouble, you’ll be whipped — or hanged, and then buried and forgotten.

It’s not as if Solomon ever gives up on escaping, or finding someone who will listen to his story and believe him. But as the years go by and he moves from one plantation to the next, and he sees what happens to those who do rebel or try to escape, he waits. He endures enormous amounts of humiliation and degradation and physical abuse, and he waits.

Ejiofor doesn’t play Solomon as some kind of unwavering superhero of suffering. When we first meet Solomon, he is man of no small vanity and no slight desire for praise. There are times when Solomon’s temper gets the best of him, even though he knows it could lead to a quick death. When it serves his purpose, he literally plays the fiddle for his captors. But Ejiofor brings a strength to his performance that never lets us forget that even when Solomon has been stripped of his name, his family and every trace of the life he once knew, he’s still there. He is not a broken man.

Yes, “12 Years a Slave” is rough to watch at times — but there are also moments of pure joy and triumph.

Unflinchingly directed by Steve McQueen, led by Ejiofor’s magnificent work, “12 Years a Slave” is what we talk about when we talk about greatness in film.


Twitter: @richardroeper

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