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4-star '12 Years a Slave' review: Tough to watch, but you can't look away

**** (out of four)

“12 Years a Slave” is a raw, powerful film that matters, but watching it doesn’t feel like work. If this movie ever appears on a syllabus, students will look forward to class.

Adapting a horrifying true story, director Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) refuses to compromise the truth about a hideous period that’s a part of us all. The filmmaker is no stranger to long takes, and he incorporates them repeatedly into his latest and arguably most daring work. In a shot I won’t forget anytime soon, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a slave after he’s kidnapped from his life as a free, married father of two in 1841 New York, stands tip-toed in mud to create even the mildest slack in the noose around his neck. Other slaves mill about in the background, afraid to assist. Kids play. A woman brings water but leaves the rope alone. There this man stands, inches from death, waiting for his owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) to cut him down.

The scene is a marvel, as is the film. McQueen consistently turns his eye to ugly incidents, not to rub viewers’ faces in them but to say, “This happened. I’m not going to cut away. Watch and deal with it. It’s almost the least you can do.”

This, of course, is a different approach from Quentin Tarantino’s over-praised slavery revenge fantasy “Django Unchained” and from recent high-profile discussions of race (like “The Help” and “Lee Daniels’ The Butler”) that leave a warm fuzzy feeling. While societal progress should be celebrated, it’s absurd for films to suggest, “Bad things happened, but racists got what they deserved and now it’s all better.”

That’s definitely not the case as McQueen processes agonizing reality into an ever-relevant depiction of humanity. The film is loaded with incredible performances, most significantly Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, who out-picks all the male slaves in the cotton field for Epps (a terrifying, similarly nomination-worthy Michael Fassbender) and gets raped for her efforts. A few lines feel clunky—in particular, “I don’t want to survive; I want to live”—but John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s 1853 book excels so often that minor hiccups are forgivable.

Some questions the movie will inspire: Is it better to die, or live in captivity without hope? Can a relatively less cruel slave owner be seen as favorable, as someone making the best of things “under the circumstances”? Can a person depriving rights and inflicting violencetruly do so without even subconscious guilt?

In McQueen’s unforgettable vision of injustice and resilience—including a brief shot of Native Americans welcoming slaves to their gathering—both morality and bigotry are built into the nation’s core, with neither going anywhere soon.

Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U

mpais@tribune.com

 

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