The Reel: ‘12 Years a Slave’ a startling portrait of 19th century America

Ben Conniff

What would you do if everything you ever knew was taken away in a single moment, like a rug suddenly yanked from beneath your feet?

Such is the tale of Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga, New York who finds himself wrongfully kidnapped and sold into slavery.

As he awaits justice to be wrought in his favor, Solomon spends 12 years trying to retain his dignity in the face of both wicked cruelty and unexpected kindness.

Powerful and emotionally gripping, “12 Years a Slave” is one of the year’s best films.

Solomon’s incredible true story gets due presentation from Steve McQueen’s careful, reverent direction.

He cradles each frame like a long lost child.

The way he lingers on certain shots lends the film a palpable, affecting gravity.

The production design makes the film feel as if it were actually made on location in the mid-19th century.

Together with John Ridley’s colloquial script, “12 Years a Slave” boasts a tremendous sense of historical accuracy, even though the brutal acts committed against the slaves are difficult to watch.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his career as Northup and leads a stellar ensemble cast including Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson.

Look for him at the front of the Best Actor pack this coming Oscar season.

As Master Epps, the film’s most notable antagonist, Fassbender slithers around his plantation, putting a vise grip on every scene he’s in.

Epps is easy to loathe as a character, but Fassbender is perfect for the role.

My favorite scene features “Argo”’s Scoot McNairy and “SNL”’s Taran Killam doing their best Barnum and Bailey impersonations as the entertainers Brown and Hamilton respectively.

The pair provides much-needed comic relief for the horrors about to come to Solomon.

“12 Years a Slave” is not the feel-good movie of the year.

This film is emotionally taxing, with unsettling words and actions that nearly moved me to tears on several occasions. But it is as worthy a testament to the human spirit as audiences have seen all year.

Ejiofor’s career-defining performance, McQueen’s careful direction, Ridley’s excellent script and period-appropriate production design make “12 Years a Slave” an unforgettable cinematic experience.

Don’t miss this sure-fire Oscar contender that should pick up nods in the acting, directing, screenwriting, production design and best picture categories.

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