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12 Years a Slave (Blu-ray Review)

7 Mar, 2014 By: John Latchem

Box Office $53.47 million
$29.98 DVD, $39.99 Blu-ray
Rated ‘R’ for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard.

Based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave is a brutal portrayal of slavery in America that is at times so raw in its approach it is difficult to watch.

This is by design, to shake the audience from expectations crafted by decades of Hollywood portrayals that dance around just how disgraceful the practice really was. That makes 12 Years a Slave a particularly significant film, holding a relationship to its subject matter that is similar in many respects to that of Schindler’s List and the Holocaust. For that alone, its many accolades, including the Oscar for Best Picture, are well deserved.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a commanding performance as Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who in 1841 was lured by a job prospect into slave territory, then kidnapped and sold into slavery. Due to a variety of circumstances, Solomon finds himself passed off from one plantation to the next, always keeping an eye out for an opportunity to reclaim his freedom.

The film is unflinching in depicting what an insidious, dehumanizing institution slavery was. Unspeakable acts are committed against some slaves in plain view of others as they go about their business, heeding the acts of cruelty little to no attention as if it’s just an accepted and common part of their lives.

These harsh realities have a devastating effect on the viewer, as it becomes apparent that even if Solomon returns to his family, the reunion will be bittersweet at best, as Solomon has simply escaped from a bondage that would continue to affect millions of others, not to mention the cultural norms that sanctioned it.

In this regard, Michael Fassbender’s excellent portrayal of sadistic slavemaster Epps brings nearly equal weight to the film as Ejiofor’s. While we might find ourselves cheering for Solomon to be rid of Epps’ ruthless oversight, we can’t help but pity those still subjected to his whims, such as Patsey, brilliantly played by Lupita Nyong’o in her Oscar-winning role.

Perhaps the film’s only real misstep, and it’s a minor one, is a cameo by Brad Pitt as a Canadian carpenter traveling through the South who helps Solomon contact his family. The performance is fine, but the actor stands out so much compared with the rest of the cast that it lends itself to describing the film as the story of a man trapped by oppression until he’s rescued by Brad Pitt.

To be fair, director Steve McQueen heaps huge praise on Pitt, citing his role as producer as the primary reason the film was made.

Visually, the film is stunning to look at, despite the evil depicted at its core. The Blu-ray presentation preserves a cinematography strategy that brings out the rich beauty of the South’s natural landscape, but also heightens the uneasiness of some of the rougher scenes (like, Passion of the Christ rough).

The primary extra is a 40-minute documentary about the making of the film, with interviews from the cast and crew interspersed with Ejiofor reading excerpts from Northup’s book, which undoubtedly adds a certain gravitas to the proceedings. The only other extras are short featurettes about the production team and Hans Zimmer’s music.

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