"12 Years A Slave," about a free man who gets sold into slavery, is expected to be one of the leading Oscar contenders this year. Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman filed the following report for NY1
"12 Years a Slave" is an agonizingly magnificent movie. It's the first great big-screen dramatization of slavery.
Based on actual events, it begins in 1841 and tells the story of a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., a musician named Solomon Northup who walks around in a natty gray suit, secure in the courtly modesty of his life as a husband and father of two. But then, he accepts an offer to go to Washington, D.C. with a pair of traveling entertainers, and it turns out he isn't being hired for his talents. He’s being trafficked.
He wakes up in a cold, stark prison cell, with a spiderweb of chains shackling his arms and legs. He's about to be sent down to Louisiana, where he'll be sold into slavery.
The brilliant actor Chiwetel Ejiofor places us right inside Solomon’s skin, letting us share the nightmare his life has become. Ejiofor may have the most eloquent eyes of any actor now working. They are orbs of pure expression, and in this movie, they need to be, because Solomon is rarely allowed to speak what he's feeling. What we read in his intensely private, thousand-yard stare is the agony of a man robbed of freedom, but also the renunciation of despair. Whatever happens, he will persevere and survive. He will know misery, but he will not fall into the trap of madness. He will transcend.
"12 Years a Slave" was directed by the British filmmaker Steve McQueen, and the scalding power of McQueen's artistry begins with the fact that Solomon wasn't born into slavery. McQueen uses that fact to dramatize the extreme unnaturalness of slavery.
The movie is brimming with powerful performances, from Michael Fassbender as a seething plantation owner who's a kind of diabolical psychologist of sadism to newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, the slave girl he regularly rapes. Nyong'o's performance is shattering. She goes to a place of private terror and communion beyond pain.
As you watch "12 Years a Slave,"every moment in it feels essential. It's Chiwetel Ejiofor's extraordinary performance that holds the movie together. He gives Solomon a deep inner strength, yet he never softens the nightmare of his existence. His ultimate pain isn't the beatings or the humiliation. It's being ripped from his family, blockaded away from all he is.
"12 Years a Slave" lets us stare at the primal sin of America with open eyes, and at moments, it's hard to watch. Yet 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.