Jacqueline Monahan's Movie Reviews

12 Years a Slave | Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o | Review

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Jacqueline  Monahan

Las Vegas Round The Clock
Jacqueline Monahan is an educator for the GEAR UP program at UNLV.
She is also an entertainment reporter for Lasvegasroundtheclock.com
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12 Years a Slave | Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o | Review

Based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) a free man who was virtually kidnapped under pretense from his life as a renowned violinist (and family man) in Saratoga, New York and sold to slave owners in New Orleans, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the almost unbelievable brutality of 19th century slave trade, the people who brought it about, and its unfortunate victims.

In 1842, the educated and literate Solomon is forced into a life of degradation, witnessing and experiencing the injustice and almost daily assaults on his (and others’) existence.  He is told to hide his ability to read and write, and is literally beaten into accepting his new name, Platt, and wretched station in life.  

In addition to the beatings, lynchings, forced family separations, and auctions befitting livestock more than human beings illustrate the nightmarish existence of those in bondage. The skilled violinist must learn to pick cotton and cut sugar cane, is forced to wear rags and endure the whip and a near hanging.

After a series of volatile confrontations with a plantation worker (Paul Dano) his initial owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) sells Solomon to diabolically evil, scripture-spouting sadist, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) who delights in tormenting his slaves with midnight dances, daily lashings and wild accusations.  

Epps fancies a young slave, Patsey, (Lupita Nyong’o) and rapes her nightly, causing her to be hated and harmed by the mistress of the house (Sarah Paulson).  Patsey decides that death is preferable to her miserable existence and enlists Solomon’s help.  He refuses; he’s got something to live for.

Solomon’s own quest is to be able to get a letter mailed back East, to the people who can get their hands on his papers to prove he’s a free man.  Help comes after several failed tries, in the form of a Canadian carpenter named Bass (co-producer Brad Pitt).

Full of fist-clenching injustice, the excellent cast brings a shameful era to life with a clarity that by its very nature must highlight the cruel and inhuman with a shudder-inducing nonchalance.

Fassbender gives Epps a barbarous glee mixed with the addled quality that suggests a madman on the loose.  Ejiofor embodies Solomon’s sorrowful, puzzled countenance, but lets the sparks fly when he can in quiet defiance and perseverance.  

Cumberbatch brings ambivalence to his oxymoronic role as a somewhat compassionate slave owner.  Pitt is believable as Bass, as dowdy looking as he’s ever appeared.  Nyong’o gives a compelling performance of the plight of many slave women, victimized by men and hated by women, terribly abused by both.  Dano is perfect as a mean, though weak plantation lackey.

British producer/director Steve McQueen (Hunger) co-wrote the screenplay with executive producer John Ridley (Red Tails) adapted from Solomon Northup’s book and spares no one, neither actor nor viewer from the grisly mayhem that was slave life in the Deep South.  Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt (The Place Beyond the Pines) provides the visual beauty of nature to contrast the ugly circumstances, creating an anomalous hell in the middle of a rural Shangri-La.

As Solomon Northup knows, things aren’t always what they seem to be at first glance.