’12 Years a Slave’ spares no one in its depiction of slavery

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man enslaved in the South in "12 Years a Slave." Credit: Fox Searchlight
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man enslaved in the South in “12 Years a Slave.”
Credit: Fox Searchlight

’12 Years a Slave’
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“12 Years a Slave” comes to theaters in the guise of a respectable Oscar-gobbler, reminding us of the fact that slavery is bad. It needs to say more than that, and it does. With relentlessly calm intensity, it depicts the institution as a machine — a pitiless mechanism that’s countered with pitiless direction from filmmaker Steve McQueen. His cameras stare unblinkingly at an institution at work. It’s one thing to say it bred inhumanity in all; it’s another to see it in action.

There’s comfort in the title: Our hero, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) “only” spent a dozen years, starting in 1841, in the system, from which he emerged to write his memoirs. But that’s the only comfort. Even the rare “good one” — Benedict Cumberbatch’s guilt-ridden master, not above acts of kindness and mercy — is still allowing the institution to persist. Northup is introduced as just another cog before a flashback reveals his identity. He was a free man up North — a well-dressed gentleman, a family man, a wonder with the fiddle. A drunken night with the wrong men ends with him awaking in chains, his papers stolen, followed by his name, his clothes and freedom.

Rechristened “Platt,” he enters the machine, from a nice plantation that isn’t so nice to a cruel one, where his master is a drunken lout (Michael Fassbender) in self-hating love with one of his slaves (Lupita Nyong’o). Given the chance to fight (and die) or keep his head down (and likely also die), he chooses the latter. His hands aren’t clean: He has to avert his eyes, saying and doing nothing, as children are stolen from their mothers, as slaves have their backs destroyed by whips. When he too winds up able to walk away, freed, he has to stare ahead so as not to see those he leaves behind.

In his previous features, “Hunger” and “Shame,” McQueen used minimalism (including several long takes) to present their pet issues: respectively, political rebellion (via the IRA) and sex addiction. “Slave” is less showoff-y. One of the few showstopping long takes finds Northup, hung from a tree, spending what feels like an eternity by balancing himself on his tip toes on a mud patch. McQueen’s approach is appropriately cold, but he has deep emotion in Ejiofor. One way Northup stays alive is by hiding his emotions, but Ejiofor has one of the most open faces — and two of the saddest eyes — in movies. It’s a perfect fit between clinical director and humane lead actor.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
International

Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe comes out as gay

In a sit-down with well-known British interviewer Sir Michael Parkinson set to air Sunday, Australian swimmer Ian Thorpe, 31, revealed he is gay after years…

International

iPhone is a security risk, says Chinese state…

Chinese state media branded Apple Inc's iPhone a threat to national security because of the smartphone's ability to track and time-stamp user locations. A report…

National

Tracy Morgan sues Wal-mart over deadly crash

Actor and comedian Tracy Morgan has sued Wal-Mart Stores Inc. in a New Jersey federal court, alleging the retailer was negligent in connection with the…

National

Tommy Ramone, last original member of punk pioneers…

Tommy Ramone, the drummer and last surviving original member of punk band the Ramones, whose aggressive and fast-driving songs spearheaded the punk-rock movement, has died…

Gossip

Mariah Carey unretouched photos show the power of…

Jezebel has the "before" pictures from Mariah Carey's Wonderland magazine photo shoot with Terry Richardson — who's no stranger to photo scandals. As Jezebel astutely…

Gossip

Facebook users upset Steven Spielberg killed a dinosaur

Some Facebook users were up in arms over a photo from the set of the 1993 film "Jurassic Park" showing director Steven Spielberg smiling in…

Music

Tommy Ramone, last original member of punk pioneers…

Tommy Ramone, the drummer and last surviving original member of punk band the Ramones, whose aggressive and fast-driving songs spearheaded the punk-rock movement, has died…

Gossip

PHOTOS: Topless Cara Delevingne advocates for 'Free the…

Supermodel Cara Delevingne is never one to shy away from the gaze of social media. Yesterday, she chose to advocate for the 'Free the Nipple' campaign via Instagram, where she…

NBA

GIF: LeBron James returns to Cleveland so deal…

To anyone out there who is upset about his decision, this .GIF is for you. Enjoy.

World Cup

A game of two popes: Vatican plays down…

By Philip PullellaVATICAN CITY (Reuters) - With Argentina meeting Germany in the World Cup final, the Vatican on Friday brushed aside talk of soccer rivalry…

NFL

Which Jets player has the best odds at…

Metro New York asked Bovada.LV to rank the top three contenders for the NFL MVP on the Jets.

World Cup

Argentina prevails in penalties, advances to final

The drama never seems to subside as the World Cup finally has its final two.

Wellbeing

Fart gas might prevent cancer

You might not like the smell, but fart gas might help prevent cancer.

Tech

Mesh sheds light on top 10 dating deal…

What are New Yorkers' top 10 dating deal breakers? Find out here.

Wellbeing

This Week in Health: Sexual headaches can be…

Sexual headaches: an under-discussed health issue Location: U.S. Results: If getting frisky brings on a headache, you’re not alone. Headaches associated with sexual activity represent a…

Food

Head to FiDi for free Chia Pods from…

They may have been last summer's darlings, but chia seeds have definitely not gone out of style. A great source of omega-3 fatty acids, they…