12 Years a Slave

MENACE MASTER: Michael Fassbender, right, plays Epps, a monstrous plantation master who torments Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South.

There'll be two kinds of viewers of 12 Years a Slave: the many who didn't realize American slavery was so terrible; the few (like Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) who'll point out that what went on was far worse than what we see here. Director Steve McQueen's third and best film sources a real-life narrative, a best-seller of the 1850s. A free man of New York named Solomon Northrup was knocked out with a Mickey Finn and shanghaied to New Orleans, where he was sold. During his enslavement, Northrup was traded back and forth among cotton, pine and sugar planters. Some masters were relatively civilized (Benedict Cumberbatch plays one). Others were corroded utterly by what slave-mastering does to a person. As Master Epps, one of the latter, Michael Fassbender embodies a soul caught in a chasm of evil: sadistic yet silly with his selective religion. There are times when watching this monster—a palsy arm around his tormented slave, his sleeve-covered other hand concealing a knife—that it becomes clear why actors often end up with troubled lives: How could you give yourself up to be a sounding board for these kind of figures, and come back from it whole?

The movie is alive with knockout character acting, including a psycho overseer (Paul Dano), Epps' dead-eyed, vicious wife (Sarah Paulson) and Brad Pitt in a graceful, one-scene role as a self-amused Canadian carpenter. Star Chiwetel Ejiofor's moral firmness, compassion and natural nobility is perfect for conveying what the institution did to the people it devoured. The Shakesperean in Ejiofor is easy with the dialogue of another era; the painter in McQueen is expert with visualizing the ordeal, as when the extinguishing of hope is visualized by the golden embers of a slowly dying fire yielding to total blackout. Great moments exist in Amistad—Morgan Freeman, examining the interior of a slave ship, getting tangled in the hanging chains, like a man fighting cobwebs. 12 Years a Slave is a far better film, focusing on the traumatized witnesses. It's a timely movie—even today, revisionists are trying to rewrite these horrors. Such liars are accessories after the fact to our national shame, and they're fools denying that the stench of what our forefathers did doesn't linger in the air of 2013 America.

12 Years a Slave

R; 133 min.

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