By William Wolf


Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave,” a highlight of the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, is a totally gripping film that doesn’t let your attention wander. But it is a tough film to watch, for it is relentless in its depiction of the horrors of slavery without trying to soften the blows. Credit John Ridley’s screenplay with keeping the story line tense and involving us in the plight of a free black who was kidnapped and condemned to be a slave, It is based on a true story, and has an excellent cast.

Remarkable actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, who in 1841 is a free man living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., has a family and is trying to follow a career as a musician when he is tricked into getting seized, being sold into slavery and shipped into the deep South. The film focuses on what slaves had to go through, as they were ripped away from their families, beaten, treated inhumanly and doomed to live with only a remote chance of escaping their bondage.

Northup battles to retain his dignity and courage as he observes what happens to others. At one point, to save his own life, he is compelled to whip a woman with whom he has deeply sympathized. Death is never more than an incident away, as vengeance is wreaked upon any slave who dares challenge an overseer. The years pass as Northup never gives up hope that one day recognition that he has been a free man will come and he will be returned to his family.

Finally it does in the form of a contractor played by Brad Pitt (one of the film’s producers) as a Canadian who condemns slavery. Northup gives him the information to trace those who might take legal action to secure his freedom against the odds due to the slave system’s power.

By then our emotional commitment is passionately with Northup and his hopes, and the film moves melodramatically toward its climax. The strong cast that helps immeasurably includes Alfre Woodard, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch and Lupita Nyong’o.

“12 Years a Slave” is surely among the very best films of 2013, one that puts in audience through an emotional wringer and dramatizes slavery for the cruelty that it inflicted. It may also make one think about other forms of slavery that still exist in he world today. A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Reviewed, October 6, 2013.


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