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12 Years a Slave is hauntingly beautiful. It’s also a slog to get through, and I cannot imagine any scenario in which I would want to watch this again. Considering the gravitas of the subject matter and great all-around execution, 12 Years a Slave is in a prime position for the Best Picture at this year’s Oscars.

While this is a phenomenal movie, Her is my favorite film of 2013 and Dallas Buyers Club featured the best acting performances. In a crowded field, 12 Years a Slave probably benefits by feeling more important than it might actually be because of the focus on the darkest period in American history—slavery (no pun intended). White guilt is abound and you’re meant to feel uncomfortable at certain points, but Steve McQueen is not a paint-by-numbers type of director so don’t worry about distasteful pandering.

Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave details the most despicable part of our history through the lens of Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) being kidnapped as a free man and sold into slavery in the South. His dignity and even his name are gone. After protesting his captors and suffering countless lashes, Platt becomes the only name he answers to as his past is completely washed away.

Throughout 12 Years a Slave, there is a very (for lack of a better term) black-and-white depiction of good and evil in this world—as seen through several slave owners and field overseers.

At the 30-minute mark, the first glimpse of good in this evil world is given with the character Master Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbactch). The only glimmer of hope possessed by Platt is the violin given to him by Ford. It’s a token that represents his true identity as well as a constant reminder of the family he may never see again. But he cannot give in to despair. Although he appreciates Platt’s tremendous talents, Ford refuses to hear his story and still treats him as property. But things could certainly be worse.

Cumberbatch

Things get worse when Tibeats (played by Paul Dano) appears on screen for the first time.

Paul Dano continues his reign as a top-notch character actor, and it’s hard to envision someone else pulling off such a comically evil racist. His horrible song is shamefully catchy. Tibeats’ bloodlust intensifies after Platt disobeys his orders and physically confronts Tibeats—forcing Master Ford to sell Platt to another slave owner, Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender). While Ford is trying to save Platt’s life, this move only endangers his existence more. Fassbender plays a drunkard with a dark, sadistic pride in breaking slaves.

Fassbender

I don’t think Michael Fassbender will actually win Best Supporting Actor because of the abhorrent nature of his character, but Fassbender definitely deserved the nomination. Without the spectacular peformances from Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o in supporting roles, the ending would have been substantially less interesting and captivating. These performances help breathe life and more depth into the story, which is a much-needed gush of fresh air to get through the last of the 134-minute runtime.

This is further proof that no movie needs to be more than 2 hours, but at least Steve McQueen makes the 2+ hours visually beautiful—albeit of slavery and the tyranny of evil men. Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Oscar-worthy performance is the lifeblood of 12 Years a Slave. Even with such an impressive supporting cast, this is the story of Solomon Northup and the success of the movie hinges on that performance.

I would expect this movie to have a lengthy life as a learning tool to teach future students about slavery—joining Glory in that pantheon of great black history movies. You need to watch 12 Years a Slave and any other movie made by Steve McQueen. Let’s just hope his next project possesses a somewhat lighter side than the desperate, depressing pursuit of survival during unspeakable circumstances.

It’s easy to lose hope. But hope is the one thing you must hold onto against incredible odds.

Violin

4.5 out of 5 stars

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  1. […] 5-star review Dallas Buyers Club: 4.5-star review 12 Years a Slave: 4.5-star review American Hustle: 4-star review The Wolf of Wall Street: 3.5-star review Nebraska: […]

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