12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man in the state of New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. (The book is available on Kindle for 99 cents.)
This powerful movie makes the audience experience the dehumanizing ordeal of slavery in vivid, often harrowing detail. It's far and away the best movie about slavery in America that I've ever seen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor will surely earn an Oscar nomination for his gritty performance as a free man who is drugged and wakes up in chains and then is beaten when he insists he is a free man.
Slave Holder: You're not a free man. You're nothin' but a Georgia runaway.
And when Solomon insists to another dealer that his name is not Platt, he's interrupted by a slap in the face and told: "You're name is Platt."
Despairing, he tells two of his fellow victims: "Days ago I was with my family in my home. Now you tell me all is lost."
And that's just the beginning of a dozen years of suffering, toiling in cotton fields for three different masters, trying to survive in spite of cruel beatings and generally vicious treatment from overseers.
When one of them criticizes him for some work he's done on a shelter, Solomon says he was just following instructions. The overseer gets angry and wants to beat him. "I will have flesh," he declares, "and I will have all of it."
Like all the slaves Solomon could be killed on any given day. Staying alive means keeping quiet and not trying to defend any of the other slaves.
The determination to survive makes Solomon intolerant of the open weeping of a slave woman whose children have been taken from her. When she accuses him of not missing his own children, he yells: "I survive. I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents for Mr. Ford. I will keep myself hardy till freedom is offered to me."
The worst of Solomon's masters is Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, a Bible thumping sadist who beats his slaves mercilessly including the woman he's forcing to have sex with him.
Although many of the shots in this film look like beautiful paintings come to life, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is not easy to watch. The savage beatings may be too much for some movie goers.
But British director Steve McQueen (whose ancestors were slaves) has been faithful to this true story which he believes is the American equivalent to Anne Frank's diary.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is definitely one of the best and most important movies of the year.
Terry Hunter, Hawaii News Now firstname.lastname@example.org