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12 Years a Slave

By REBECCA JACOBSON
Twelve Years a Slave was part of a literary tide. When the memoir was published in 1853, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Frederick Douglass’ autobiography were bestsellers, helping to fuel the abolitionist movement. But Solomon Northup’s story was different. Born a free man, he led a comfortable life as a carpenter and violinist with his wife and children in upstate New York in 1841, when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Northup managed to regain his freedom 12 years later and soon published Twelve Years a Slave, which became a bestseller of its own. But at some point, Northup disappeared and his book fell out of print. Now, it’s little-known outside the halls of academia. All of which makes British director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave an even more staggering revelation. The film is agonizing but not lurid, compassionate but not melodramatic, patient but still thrilling. McQueen exposes the full extent of slavery’s physical cruelty, from the endless hours of cotton-picking to the capricious acts of violence, as well as the system’s psychological toll. Chiwetel Ejiofor, with stoicism and crushing reserve, plays a man forced to keep his head down and feign illiteracy. Despite its handful of vicious instances of violence, 12 Years has none of the garish extravagance of last year’s Django Unchained, in which Quentin Tarantino perverted a historical atrocity into a hip-hop-scored spaghetti Western. Alongside the film’s occasional brutality, McQueen stages takes of astounding beauty and surprising tranquility. He’s a patient filmmaker, favoring long shots and wide angles over the quick cuts and close-ups that can sap scenes of their impact. Most impressive is that 12 Years a Slave does not feel like an ethical or educational obligation. While its instructive value is undeniable, this is also a rousing portrait, a morally complicated tale and a masterful work of art. It’s not perfect, but it comes damn close.
 
  • Genres: Biography, Historical drama
  • Running Time: 134 minutes
  • Release Date: Friday, January 17, 2014
  • Country: United States
  • Language: English
  • MPAA Rating: R [ Brief Sexuality, Some Nudity, Violence/Cruelty ]
  • Critic's Score: A
  • Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor [Solomon Northup], Michael Fassbender [Edwin Epps], Benedict Cumberbatch [William Ford], Paul Dano [Tibeats], Garret Dillahunt [Armsby], Paul Giamatti [Theophilus Freeman], Scoot McNairy [Brown], Lupita Nyong'o [Patsey], Adepero Oduye [Eliza], Sarah Paulson [Mistress Epps], Brad Pitt [Bass], Michael Williams [Robert], Alfre Woodard [Mistress Shaw], Chris Chalk [Clemens], Taran Killam [Hamilton], Bill Camp [Radburn], Kelsey Scott [Anne Northup], Quvenzhané Wallis [Margaret Northup], Cameron Zeigler [Alonzo Northup]
  • Directed by: Steve McQueen [Director], John Ridley [Screenwriter], Brad Pitt [Producer], Dede Gardner [Producer], Jeremy Kleiner [Producer], Bill Pohlad [Producer], Steve McQueen [Producer], Arnon Milchan [Producer], Anthony Katagas [Producer], John Ridley [Executive Producer], Tessa Ross [Executive Producer], Hans Zimmer [Original Music], Sean Bobbitt [Cinematographer], Joe Walker [Film Editor], Francine Maisler [Casting], Adam Stockhausen [Production Design], David Stein [Art Director], Alice Baker [Set Decoration], Patricia Norris [Costume Designer]
  • Visit the Movie Website | Watch the trailer
 

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