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Article by Teddy Durgin

12 Years a Slave Is Two Hours a Masterpiece

There are some movies that take us to dark, dark places. They put us right in the shoes of those who have faced unimaginable peril, been forced to make unthinkable decisions, been subjected first-hand to man's indecency and inhumanity. Several titles come to mind - "Sophie's Choice," "Schindler's List," and "The Hanoi Hilton." Sometimes you get into the middle of such films and you ask yourself: "Why am I watching this?!" The latest example is "12 Years a Slave." This is a powerful and absolutely harrowing film about a free black man from upstate New York who is abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. His name was Solomon Northup. He was a real man. This really happened. It happened all too often to many men, women and children like him in the antebellum United States. Why is Solomon's story different? Because, unlike so many others, he was able to eventually tell his story. He wrote about it. And this film is based on that book. Steve McQueen is the director. His purpose here is not to scratch at an old scab or exact some sort of age-old revenge. And I don't even think he, screenwriter John Ridley and their brilliant lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor truly have the lofty goal of "If we make this film and enough people will see it, then this sort of thing will never happen again." These three and the rest of the cast and crew are explorers. They are venturing into the darkest places humanity has ever gone. And they are honoring the light that shone, however dimly, in the most troubling of times. I have nothing to draw on to relate to what happened to Solomon Northup or those like him. Seriously, the closest I could come is "Six Years a Catholic School Student." But you read this column for my personal perspective. I just don't have much to draw on here. As a white guy, I didn't feel good watching this film. How could I? Whenever I think of those times, I can't help feeling sad of all the damn waste. Wasted souls, wasted lives, wasted precious time. Solomon Northup was one of a very few people who was given the opportunity to take that waste and turn it into something meaningful. He turned it into great art. And more than a century later, some talented people have turned his book into a singular motion picture. The plot? Uh... the dude spent 12 years as a slave. That's the plot. He not only endured physical brutality, but psychological cruelty as well. Ripped from his wife and two children, sold into bondage, denied his name, forced to hide his intelligence. He encounters benevolent masters, he endures cruel masters. Through it all, he makes one vow. "I don't want to survive," he says. "I want to live!" Powerful stuff. I have some nitpicks with the film. As harrowing as the movie is and as "long" as it feels in sharing this ordeal with Solomon and those he comes in contact with along the way, there is one flaw to the picture. McQueen drops the ball in depicting the passage of time. Some movies rather brilliantly encapsulate years in hours. "The Shawshank Redemption," for example, perfectly depicts 19 years of a man's life stolen. Here, the movie is so "compartmentalized" in Solomon's time on two plantations, that it only feels like maybe two or three years a slave. And while the final resolution is apparently true to what really happened in real life, it's still hard to ignore the somewhat Hollywood-ized resolution of a major white movie star ostensibly coming to rescue in the final 15 or so minutes. I point these things out just to let a bit of the air out of some the hyperbole and unbridled superlatives being heaped on the film. They do not diminish the power of "12 Years a Slave." If you can steel yourself, it's more than a must-see. It's a must-experience. "

12 Years a Slave" is rated R for violence, cruelty, some nudity and sexual situations.


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