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Friday, 01 November 2013 01:00

'12 Years a Slave' overflows with horrible history + Video

'12 Years a Slave' overflows with horrible history
Written by Martha K. Baker
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  • Director: Steve McQueen
  • Dates: Opens Nov. 1, 2013

The violence in "12 Years a Slave" is hard to take. It cannot be dismissed as cartoonish or video game-ish, for it is too close to the bone, the baddest bone of American history. For the South to thrive with rice or cotton as king, the region needed hands to work the land.

The South bought slaves for the work. Not all slaves came from Africa; some came from the Northern United States, free women and free men sold into slavery by unscrupulous citizens who believed the Bible and their own ignorance and ascribed to black people the position of beast and, therefore, chattel.

Solomon Northup was an engineer and a violinist in Saratoga, N.Y. He had a beloved wife and two children. Twists of fate and bad decisions left him shackled in a cell near Washington, D.C., having been sold into slavery. For the next 12 years, according to his memoir, probably recorded by a white man, Northup slaved. He was taught not to trust, not to reveal that he could read or write, not even to admit to his real name after some other man's was accorded him. He did what he could to help those around him, but he learned the hard way to look out for himself. He never really lost hope, not utterly, that he would be a free man again.

In those year, he saw beatings, he gave beatings, and he was lynched like strange fruit almost to death. He heard awful, wretched things about himself and his race. Northup endured and persevered, and only the knowledge that the film is based on his book hints that he would come out of enslavement alive.

Chiwetel Ejiofor embodies Solomon Northup. Why, there's nary a hint of the drag queen he played in "Kinky Boots"! His silences are as eloquent as his confessions. Ejiofor is surrounded by a cast of gold, including Dwight Henry and Quvenzhané Wallis from "Beasts of the Southern Wild"; Alfre Woodard; and Sarah Paulson as a hateful plantation mistress with Michael Fassbender as a wicked master. Bryan Batt from "Mad Men" and Adepero Oduye from "Pariah" are here, as are Michael K. Williams, Omar from "The Wire," Garrett Dillahunt from "Raising Hope" and "Winter's Bone," and Paul Giamatti. A kindly slaver is played by Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, Sherlock Holmes), and a miserable overseer is played by Paul Dano. And, in the end, one of the producers, Brad Pitt, appears.

Director Steve McQueen has done a magnificent job with a diversity of colors in skin and sound, with skrims of Spanish moss against sunsets, with flashbacks of flashbacks and close-ups, some odd at first, and with American history, writ large and credible. "12 Years a Slave" is commendable.

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