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Nearly every film will have some sort of emotional reaction on the viewer. These reactions can range from joy, to fear, to boredom, to disgust. But it takes a truly great film to hit you on such an emotional level that it will leave you in tears. Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave will likely have this effect on people. It is such an emotionally tolling film, that I found myself tearing up in multiple moments throughout the film’s 133 minute run-time. It is horrifying in its realistic portrayal of slavery, breathtaking in the sheer amount of care and cinematic prowess that went into its production, and ultimately uplifting in the film’s message that, no matter how bad things may get, there is always something worth living for.

In this astonishing true story, Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Solomon Northup, a free African American man who is living with his wife and two children in New York during the year 1841. One day he is approached by a pair of men (Taran Killam and Scoot McNairy) who offer him a job as a musician in a traveling circus. This job offer seems too good to be true and, unfortunately for Solomon, it is. He awakens the following morning in a jail cell, having been drugged the night before. Despite being a free man, Solomon is sent by ship to New Orleans to be sold as a slave.

In his third feature film, director Steve McQueen has crafted what will surely go down as a masterpiece. The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is incredibly exquisite, somehow managing to simultaneously look beautiful and threatening, often within the same shot. An early scene in which the camera moves through a field of sugarcane is certainly a harbinger of the violence that the audience will soon be witness to. Also incredible are McQueen’s use of long takes. Some of them last for an excruciatingly long time, forcing the viewer to feel some of the distressing pain that Northup is also experiencing. One long take involving a whipping is so expertly shot and choreographed that it will likely be studied for years to come.

Many viewers may find the graphic violence depicted in the film simply too much to handle. In his portrayal of the hardships that were faced by African Americans during the time of slavery, McQueen simply doesn’t hold anything back. Not only is the physical violence in the film disturbing, but the actual dehumanization of the African Americans is brutal to watch as well. A scene in which white plantation owners walk through a room full of naked African Americans for sale will fill the viewer with disgust and a scene involving a rape is truly horrifying to watch. Never before has the calamity of slavery been portrayed so realistically on film.

Chiwetel Ejiofor has been delivering solid performances for over a decade, but it his role as Solomon Northup that should finally get audiences to take notice of his incredible abilities. Ejiofor delivers a magnificently emotional performance as Northup, a man who is willing to endure the most difficult of circumstances to survive and, hopefully, one day be reunited with his family. Ejiofor takes the audience on an emotional journey and really makes you feel what his character is experiencing.

Luckily, Ejiofor never overshadows any of his costars, who all deliver equally impressive performances. Michael Fassbender is brilliantly frightening as plantation owner Edwin Epps. Fassbender’s character often feels like a man who cannot be reasoned with, making him all the more intimidating. As the Mistress Epps, Sarah Paulson is often more terrifying than her onscreen husband, choosing to slowly torture any of her slaves that she is not fond of. The slave that receives most of this torture is Patsey and Lupita Nyong’o (in her feature film debut) is incredible in the role. Not every plantation owner is portrayed as truly evil and it is clear that Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, William Ford, is simply a product of the times that he has been born into. Cumberbatch is great in the role, further cementing him as one of our greatest up-and-coming actors. Finally, in a small but pivotal role, Brad Pitt turns on his Southern accent as Samuel Bass, but he does so with gravitas and sophistication.

The true story of Solomon Northup is so extraordinary and inspiring that it’s baffling that it has taken this long to adapt it into a feature film. Thankfully, it has been worth the wait because this story has been given the care that it deserves. With a musical score by Hans Zimmer that manages to feel both tender and imposing, and an intelligently crafted script from John Ridley, Steve McQueen has somehow managed to assemble a cast and crew of the highest pedigree. Not only is 12 Years a Slave one of the best films of the year, it is quite possibly the greatest film ever made about slavery in the American South.

12 Years a Slave receives 4/4

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