Over the weekend, PJ and I saw 12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping into slavery. It’s an incredible, moving film that is surely the most realistic depiction of slavery yet produced. Here’s the trailer:

It’s almost impossible to describe this movie adequately. I knew almost nothing about it before seeing it (unlike PJ, who has read the original memoir). One consequence of this was that I really didn’t know what was going to happen next. The consensus among our friends was that it didn’t matter either way — if you knew the plot or didn’t it was still a powerful depiction of the ills of slavery (to put it mildly).

It’s power was due to both McQueen’s wonderful direction and to the main performances. I’ve liked every film by McQueen that I’ve seen so far, including Hunger and Shame. In this film, he juxtaposes images of nature with those of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery to great effect. Most importantly, he doesn’t try to do too much. He shows the evils of slavery with an unflinching eye; he doesn’t need to throw in a lot of cinematic tricks to distract us from the subject at hand.

But the film belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Northup. I first saw Ejiofor when he starred in Kinky Boots. His body of work so far proves that he’s an incredible actor with a great deal of talent and range. Here he is forced to speak as little as possible, using just his eyes and face to express – or not express – his emotions and reactions to the horrors around him. It’s an amazing performance, one that is guaranteed to earn him an Oscar nomination at the very least.

Several supporting performances were also great, especially Michael Fassbender as an insane plantation owner who revels in tormenting his slaves and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the primary object of his desire and rage.

No film can really capture the horrors of slavery, which are often white-washed in movies. But 12 Years a Slave comes as close as any film can. It is often difficult to watch. I felt like I didn’t breath for the last hour or so of the film. Brad Pitt plays a small but pivotal role; if his character hadn’t done what he did, I felt like I was going to vomit from the suspense, brutality, and evil of what was happening to Northup. I can’t remember the last film that elicited such a visceral response from me.

It’s a towering achievement and one of the best films of the year. Everyone should see this movie!

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