'12 Years' a powerful achievement

Director Steve McQueen, from left, actress Lupita Nyong'o and actor Chiwetel Ejiofor arrive for the Accenture Gala Screening of “12 Years A Slave.” (The Associated Press)

Published: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 6, 2013 at 12:24 p.m.

Is it possible to convey, through the experience of just one man, the sweep and enormity of the horror that was American slavery?

That, quite simply, is the formidable task that British director Steve McQueen has set for himself with his new film, the blistering "12 Years a Slave."

The movie opens Friday in Gainesville at Regal Cinema in Butler Plaza.

As it happens, the film is stunningly good, thanks both to McQueen's unflinching, unsentimental approach and to impeccable casting, most crucially of the wonderfully expressive Chewitel Ejiofor as a man with a truly extraordinary — and extraordinarily true — story.

The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a black man who was born free in New York. In 1841, Northup, a skilled violinist, was lured to Washington, D.C., with the offer of work. Instead, his "employers" drugged him and sold him to a slave trader.

Crucial early scenes depict a comfortable, happy life in Saratoga, N.Y., where Northup lived with his wife and two children. That all changes in one hellish moment, when he awakes in shackles, his wallet and papers gone, and realizes he has no way of proving who he is. He loses even his name.

Soon, Northup's on his way to Louisiana. Shock — his, and ours — deepens as he stands for inspection, surrounded by other slaves for sale, many naked, poked and prodded like cattle by their seller (a frighteningly banal Paul Giamatti) who has no problem separating a mother from her small children.

Northup's first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, in the scheme of things, a more sympathetic type, and he appreciates his new slave's intelligence.

But he's powerless to protect Northup from a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano, reliably chilling), and a confrontation Northup has with the overseer leads to one of the film's most excruciating scenes — perhaps one of the most painful in any film about slavery.

Epps — mesmerizingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, a McQueen regular — also has sexual desires for a lovely young slave, Patsey, who has to endure not only Master's advances, but the poisonous, violent jealousy of his wife (Sarah Paulson, also excellent.)

But the film truly belongs to Ejiofor, whose big, soulful eyes seem to register so many things at once: Shock, pain, grit, determination, abject despair at times, cautious hope at others — and always, dignity.

"I don't want to survive," he says at one point. "I want to LIVE." But before he can live, he must survive. It's an extraordinary tale. How McQueen and his team portray that tale is quite extraordinary, too.

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