Craig's First Take: "12 Years a Slave"

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In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
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“12 Years a Slave” may be the best film you’ll just want to get done with of the year. It’s based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography, in which he, a freed black man, is kidnapped and forced into slavery. Directed by Steve McQueen, who made a big splash two years ago with sex addiction drama “Shame”, the film isn’t so much shocking as it is angering and it looks at slavery not just from the violence it caused, but from the ingrained emotional strife it carries.

Chiwetel Ejiofor finally gets his star-making turn as Northup, a violinist and family man in New York who, while on a trip to Washington with some Carnival business men, wakes up one morning to find himself in chains. He and several others found without papers are transported to the South, where told by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) that he bares a resemblance to a runaway named Platt.

When he and another woman are bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the film looks at the toll of being ripped away from ones family and children, and at the closest thing to a owner-slave friendship that could possibly be achieved during this time. Paul Dano is also on hand as a plantation boss who doesn’t like the Uppity Solomon. The film then spends most of its time with Epps (a crazed Michael Fassbender), an owner who deals out harsh punishments to those who don’t meet his cotton quotas.

There are times when “12 Years” just feels like a tough watch with a bunch of recognizable stars walking on for a bit (Brad Pitt, who produced the film, also comes in later) but the injustice of this period, not just with the brutal beatings, whippings, and forced degradation (Solomon is forced to stand on tip-toes with a noose around his neck), but the way the soullessness of it can be mentally destroying speaks volumes. And some of the best scenes are about the slave mentality, men and women who have been conditioned in fear and abuse, knowing nothing but keeping their heads down, some driven to the point of insanity by it. An actress named Lupita Nyong'o gives an incredible performance here as Epp's most favored slave.

Steve Ridley, who wrote the shallow Tuskegee airman film “Red Tails”, does a terrific job exploring this sickness on American history, while Ejiofor is definitely on his way to a nomination as Northup, a smart man forced to control his pride while not lose his spirit. “12 Years” was yet another big-time festival darling this year and it’s easy to see why. It looks at a very disgusting time and gets inside the heads of the people who lived through it.