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12 Years a Slave: Shades of Survival in BAFTA nominee

Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o) and Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) are illuminated much like a Caravaggio canvas by acclaimed cinematographer Sean Bobbit 

UPDATED: 2/16/2014 for the BAFTAs

It's been two years since I first learned that Steve McQueen was making a movie based on the true account of Solomon Northup called 12 Years a Slave; two years since I wrote my first post on the film when all I knew was that an Englishman with a difficult to pronounce name was playing the part of the free black man kidnapped and sold into slavery as a man named Platt. At the time Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt were both attached, but no one was sure what part either star would play. I've long since learned to say the name - Shee-Wet-El  Ezh-EE-O-For - and I've finally, finally seen the film; and wow, what a wrenching history lesson. 

I knew there would be blood, I knew there would be brutality; there's plenty of both. What I didn't expect was McQueen's almost dispassionate view of Northup's world and its horrors. For Northup, the horror begins when he's tricked and sold into slavery; prior to that, we learn through McQueen's frequent use of flashbacks, Northup lived a good life as a free man. We see him strolling the streets of Saratoga, New York with his wife and children, greeting neighbors congenially, shopping in a white owned store. Scenes that are striking, sadly, because we've been so rarely - if ever - shown black people of the period in this way. Except for the color of his skin, Northup could be any average man. Except for the color of his skin. Which makes his capture and forced enslavement all the more resonant for the average white viewer, like me.  Look, McQueen tells us, this is how it really feels to have your freedom stolen, this is how it works when you have no say, this is how it looks when speaking up can get you twenty lashes, when standing up for someone else can get you killed. Imagine your own fury, if you will, your protestations ignored, your very personhood denied. Imagine being wrongly imprisoned and knowing there's nothing, nothing you can do about it.

This is the awful backdrop McQueen shows us in 12 Years a Slave. In one scene Northup is strung up to a tree and left to dangle for hours, his legs barely holding him up, his toes barely grazing the ground. Behind and beyond him, Northup's fellow slaves go about doing their work, their children at play. Shockingly we even hear their laughter. This is just another day on the plantation, move along folks, nothing to see here. One young woman is brave enough to sneak Northup a drink but there's nothing more she can do. For me, that scene encapsulates the story of slavery; it could never have happened without an entire country being complicit, watching mostly wordlessly, ignoring the savage cruelty because the work had to be done, cotton had to be picked, profits to be plucked. 

There are no stereotypes in McQueen's portrait of the shameful period, not the white characters or the black. Benedict Cumberbatch plays the good master Ford to Michael Fassbender's evil plantation owner Epps but neither man is wholly one or the other. Cumberbatch may gift the talented Northup with a violin but he can't - or won't - protect him from the savagery of society, and tellingly, like the country he lives in, he certainly won't set this black man free. Fassbender - cruel in extreme - is blinded by his own forbidden passions. He can't believe, as McQueen told the audience at a post-screening Q&A my son attended, that he could be in love with a black woman. A black woman, played with astonishing depth by Lupita Nyong'o, who would rather die than bear the degradation of his repeated rapes, seen in contrast to Alfre Woodard as the formerly enslaved Mistress Shaw, who lives freely with a white plantation owner. She hasn't been whipped in years she whispers to Northup. Ignoring the master's infidelities seems a small price to pay in exchange for her tenuous 'freedom'; to be the one giving the orders rather than the one mutely standing by, obeying because your life depends upon it. Throughout McQueen shows us the issue isn't black and white, the colors of survival are shaded at best. 

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender/12 Years a Slave

McQueen, his film, the talented cast and the behind the camera collaborators have all been heralded for the parts they play here; I leave it to the real reviewers to detail the films' fine points and the many nuanced characters. I can only say the film paints a complex, painful picture unflinching in its' accuracy and the depths of its' depravities. The story engrossed me for the entire two hours and 13 minutes of its running time; the darkness of the times, the determination of Solomon Northup in the face of his dehumanizing enslavement, will stay with me for much longer. 

12 Years A Slave has been nominated for 9 BAFTA awards including: Best Film, Best Director (Steve McQueen) Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), Best Leading Male Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Editing (Joe Walker), Original Film Music (Hans Zimmer), Cinemtography (Sean Bobbitt) Production Design (Adam Stockhausen and Alice Baker), and Rising Star (Lupito Nyongo)

Directed by Steve McQueen; written by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northup; director of photography, Sean Bobbitt; edited by Joe Walker; music by Hans Zimmer; production design by Adam Stockhausen; costumes by Patricia Norris; produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Mr. McQueen, Arnon Milchan and Anthony Katagas; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Running time: 2 hours 14 minutes.

WITH: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Garret Dillahunt (Armsby), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Scoot McNairy (Brown), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Adepero Oduye (Eliza), Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps), Brad Pitt (Bass), Michael Kenneth Williams (Robert), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), Chris Chalk (Clemens), Taran Killam (Hamilton) and Bill Camp (Radburn).