Review: '12 Years a Slave' may be the best picture of 2013
We expect the lashings, the leg irons, the cruelty and injustice of it all. But what Steve McQueen's brilliant “12 Years a Slave” does for our understanding of that “peculiar” institution is the utter hopelessness of those enslaved.
It lets a GPS/smart phone-addicted generation understand what it was like to not know where you are, to realize the helplessness of attempting to run away or steal paper to write a plea for help.
And it forces those who would rationalize the era's mores and religious “justification” for human beings enslaving and torturing one another to see that there is no rationalization for it, that there were many who could tell right from wrong, even back then.
Chiwetel Ejiofor conjures up just the right measure of dignity as Solomon Northup, a New York musician, husband and father who was tricked into taking an engagement in Washington, D.C., along the border between free and slave states.
Yes, this really happened in 1841: A black American who had never been a slave was kidnapped, smuggled south and sold into slavery. He struggled to keep his spirits up and his hope alive, even as others around him committed suicide or fell into inconsolable weeping at having their children sold.
The beauty of this movie is in how we identify with Northup and come to understand the awful effects his loss of liberty had not just on him, but on the moral relativists and outright sadists who ran the machinery of slavery. Even a so-called “good master” (the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch plays one) had to embrace an “it's just business” myopia about what he was doing to other human beings.
Even a “legitimate businessman” (Paul Giamatti) had to close his eyes to the unspeakable cruelty of breaking up families, to become less human by treating other humans as livestock.
And then there were the monsters. Paul Dano is hateful perfection as the classic low-class overseer, brutal to his charges because he needs somebody to look down on and lord over. A wild-eyed Michael Fassbender plays an alcoholic Louisiana landowner who keeps an enslaved paramour (Lupita Nyong'o, a revelation) whom his resentful wife (Sarah Paulson) insists on forcing her husband to torture in his sober moments.
And Alfre Woodard plays a one-time slave who has become mistress of her house, not above keeping slaves of her own, but capable of empathy and kindness toward those still confined.
It's a challenging, serious and scholarly film, not the blacksploitation burlesque that was “Django Unchained.” McQueen and his stellar cast take us on a difficult journey, a sometimes awful and only faintly inspiring odyssey that will make you want to avert your eyes. It is to their great credit that we never do.
Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- Swank prefers characters who don’t care about their wrinkles
- Reese Witherspoon: How a scandal saved her career
- Tis the season: Holiday home video gift guide
- ‘Foxcatcher’ filmmaker Miller drawn to odd story
- Oakmont’s Oaks Theater owner projects updates will expand presence, use
- ‘Hobbit’ tinkering is in a good cause, film creators say