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Movie review: ‘12 Years a Slave’

HAMBURG — Every once in a while, a movie comes along that goes beyond the normal realm of entertainment. Usually, due to their subject matter and unblinking truth telling, these rare movies become “must-sees.”

Movies such as “The Grapes of Wrath,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “To Kill a Mockingbird, “Philadelphia” and “Schindler’s List,” to name just a few, are deemed important for what they say and, more importantly, how they say it.

Add “12 Years a Slave” to that list. I cannot say that this movie is entertaining. How can I attach such a description to a film that depicts human sin and suffering with such brutal honesty? There were times when I found this movie very difficult to watch.

The movie “12 Years a Slave” is the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man in pre-Civil War America, who is abducted from his town in upstate New York and sold into slavery. Leaving behind a wife and children, he is brought down to Louisiana, where he suffers incredible and hard-to-watch indignities.

Solomon is a cultured man and a virtuoso violinist who must conceal his education to survive. An intelligent black man in the antebellum South would be considered a threat to his less intelligent master.

The man’s harrowing odyssey is painful to watch. There are images throughout this movie that I would wager have never been seen, on the silver screen. They are shocking and, sadly, feel authentic.

Directed by Steve McQueen, a director of serious repute (“Shame,” “Hunger”), “12 Years a Slave” is a masterpiece. Despite its depiction of the ugly side of human nature, there is beauty to be seen – beauty in the Louisiana vistas, lakes and forests shot spectacularly to seemingly counterpoint the viciousness and deprivation the viewer is witnessing.

McQueen’s brilliance and originality are evidenced in camera placement, composition and pacing. He takes his time, yet the film is not slow-moving. In fact, I would say this movie, at almost 2 1/2 hours, is so riveting that time is of little concern to the viewer.

The screenplay by John Ridley is superb – classic and literate in style. Acted by a cast of non-stars, with the exception of Brad Pitt in a small but pivotal role, McQueen draws out exceptional performances, from the entire cast. There is not a false moment. Special mentions must go to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon and Michael Fassbender as evil slave owner Edwin Epps. Their performances are towering.

“12 Years a Slave” is simply a work of art. It is not an easy film. It is a brave film that shows the shame of a nation. It does not romanticize the antebellum South, as so many books and movies do. We are seeing the truth, as much as a movie is capable of doing so, for the very first time. “Roots” had a try at it and made some headway. “12 Years a Slave” lays it out – blood, sweat and tears – for all to see.

“12 Years a Slave” is currently in theaters.

Tony Baksa is a Hamburg resident who has spent the majority of his life working in show business. He is the founder and artistic director of Hamburg Theatre Under The Stars. His blog “The Kitchen Sink,” a blog about everything, was named one of the top 10 best new international blogs by Google.
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