In 1977, the miniseries "Roots" awakened the national conscience about the inhumanity of slavery that remains one of the most appalling periods in American history. The new feature film "12 Years a Slave" adds an exclamation point to that production through the true life story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the New York State citizen — a free man — who was kidnapped and made to work on a plantation in New Orleans in the 1800s.
Through an Oscar-worthy performance by Ejiofor and newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, director Steve McQueen has fashioned a film that will haunt and enslave your heart and mind.
These images come through the life Northup lives under the control of heartless masters and the constant threat from those who consider slaves to be less important than livestock. McQueen built the movie as a constant battle between one man's efforts to maintain his humanity and the efforts of others to strip it away.
This is particularly powerful during the confrontations between Northup and Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the Louisiana slave owner who takes Northup as one of his possessions through payment on a debt. Epps is a drunken, emotionally crippled man who flies into fits of fury at any sign of Northup's unbeaten spirit.
It's this duel of wills that reaches a climax in one horrifying scene where Northup is forced to whip a fellow slave.
It's not the visualization of the brutality that makes this such a powerful scene; it's the performance by Ejiofor as his character shows the first signs of resigning himself to his nightmarish life. Great actors can command a scene without a word of dialogue and there has been no more commanding performance this year than that of Ejiofor.
Equally as memorable is Nyong'o as a young slave who has become the object of the plantation owner's passions and the wife's scorn. She's thrown into a netherworld between the benefits and misfortunes of being the object of such attention.
It's a demanding role that the newcomer handles with such ease that she transcends that line between acting a role and becoming the character.
The film is loaded with strong supporting performances, including Paul Giamatti as a heartless slave dealer, Alfre Woodard as a slave who uses her improved status to forget the travesties of her past, and Sarah Paulson as a woman whose unfettered cruelty is fanned by her jealousy of one of the slaves. Each offers an unforgettable accent on the emotional and physical brutality of the time.
"12 Years a Slave" is set against the horrors of slavery, but it's not just about slaves. It works so magnificently because it's the story of how far a person can be pushed and still hold on to the last strands of dignity and basic human rights. It's a message that cuts across all demographics.
All of this goes together to earn "12 Years a Slave" a spot at the top of the list for best pictures released this year. There are moments of such hatred and torture that it is difficult to watch. But that's the main reason this movie should be seen. The soul-grabbing examination of this horrible time gives it the power to be the 21st century's answer to "Roots."
“12 Years a Slave,” rated R for violence, nudity, sexual situations. Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Lupita Nyong’o. Directed by Steve McQueen. Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes. Grade: A
TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, firstname.lastname@example.org or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.