Every year’s fall-festival season yields an Oscar front-runner or two, but from the moment that 12 Years a Slave premiered at September’s Telluride Film Festival, the industry has swooned, crowning director Steve McQueen’s epic tale of American slavery as something more than just the film to beat. Think about those wonderful Oscar montages that piece together the greatest moments of our greatest movies of the last 100 years — Cary Grant eluding a biplane in a cornfield, Sundance telling Butch he can’t swim, Henry Fonda telling the Joads he’ll be there. It’s not difficult to imagine the face of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as part of that Oscar tribute 10, 20, or 30 years from now. 12 Years is that kind of cinematic experience.
Solomon Northup was a real person, a free New York musician with a wife and children, who was drugged, chained, and sold into Southern slavery in 1841. That his ordeal is little-known, and that Hollywood has flinched from depicting American slavery in all its evils, is unfortunate but notable, and McQueen’s eye is unsparing as he depicts the corrosive impact of slavery on all that it touches. Solomon’s odyssey south is one humiliating and brutal encounter after another, culminating in his sale to a sadistic plantation owner played by Michael Fassbender.
That’s not to say that 12 Years is something that needs to be endured by audiences. As EW’s Owen Geliberman writes, “It’s a film of such emotion that in telling the story of a life that gets taken away, it lets us touch what life is.”
With 12 Years a Slave expanding to more cities this weekend, click below to see what other critics are saying about McQueen’s Oscar hopeful.
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