Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a black man who was born a free man in upstate New York in 1808. A skilled carpenter and fiddler, he and his wife (Kelsey Scott) settled in Saratoga Springs where they were raising their children (Quvenzhane Wallis and Cameron Zeigler) when their American Dream turned into a nightmare in 1841.
One day, Solomon was approached by two white strangers (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) who offered him a high-paying job playing music with a circus in Washington, D.C. However, upon arriving in the capital, they sold him to a slave trader (Christopher Berry) who put Solomon in chains and shipped him to a cotton plantation in the Deep South.
What ensued was a 12 year ordeal in which Solomon was whipped whenever he attempted to explain that he was a free man. Despite being tortured by a sadistic master (Michael Fassbender) — who was determined to break his spirit — Solomon somehow managed to maintain his sanity and his dignity.
With the help of a kindly Canadian (Brad Pitt), who was passing through town, Solomon was eventually able to inform abolitionists up North of his dire predicament and was finally reunited with his family. Upon his emancipation in 1853, Solomon wrote and published a memoir chronicling the cruelties he suffered in captivity in explicit detail.
Entitled 12 Years a Slave, the book became a runaway best-seller that slipped into obscurity after the Civil War. Directed by Steve McQueen (Hunger), the screen version is a fairly faithful adaptation of the memoir.
In a banner year for African American films, this heartbreaking historical drama just might be the best of the bunch. The film has already been generating early Oscar buzz thanks to a People’s Choice Award from the Toronto International Film Festival.
Unapologetically graphic in its depiction of the institution of slavery’s evils, 12 Years a Slave does not contain any comic asides such as the ones in Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained. Therefore, brace yourself for a relentlessly gruesome movie with escalating violence.
The picture is a sobering narrative of the life of a slave that recounts an authentic case of human bondage.
Excellent (****). Rated R for violence, torture, sexuality, nudity, and ethnic slurs. Running time: 133 minutes. Distributor: Fox Searchlight.