Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard
Oscar Wins: Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay (John Ridley), Best Supporting Actress (Lupita Nyong’o)
Oscar Nominations: Best Actor (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Best Supporting Actor (Michael Fassbender), Best Director (Steve McQueen), Best Production Design (Adam Stockhausen, Alice Baker), Best Costume Design (Patricia Norris), Best Film Editing (Joe Walker)
SUMMARY: Solomon Northup is a free African-American man living in New York with his wife and two children in 1841. After accepting a job offer, Northup is kidnapped and taken to a slave pen, where he is treated as an escaped slave. Northup is bought by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who he quickly impresses with his engineering knowledge. This knowledge, along with Northup’s attitude, angers plantation carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who goes out of his way to cause trouble for Northup. After a climactic fight between the two, Northup is sold to Edwin Epps. Epps is the stereotypical tyrannical slave owner, who frequently beats his slaves and repeatedly rapes one female slave, Patsey (Nyong’o).
Through a series of events, Northup finds the chance to send a letter to his friends in New York, asking for help. However, this deal falls through, and the letter is never sent. After several more years, Northup meets a Canadian man who is building a gazebo for Epps. This man (Brad Pitt) is morally opposed to slavery, and does not hide his views from Epps or the slaves. After Epps forces him to whip Patsey, Northup approaches the Canadian about sending a letter to New York. This letter does make it to New York, and a man eventually comes to the plantation to free Northup. He returns to New York and his family after twelve years of slavery.
MY TAKE: This is an incredible story, and the fact that it’s true makes it even better. It can be hard to watch at times, but that’s pretty much a given in a movie about slavery. Look out for the nasty close-up blood spray in the scene where Northup has to whip Patsey. The overall injustice that was done to Northup (and to all African-Americans) is astounding and frustrating, but Northup’s ability to stay focused on regaining his freedom and returning to his family is impressive. The cast of the movie is also great, although it’s ironic that both major plantation owners and the main character are played by Europeans (Cumberbatch and Ejiofor are English, Fassbender is German-Irish). Paul Dano brings back his creepy wackadoo persona from “There Will Be Blood”, and Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti show up in small roles (more irony: Giamatti’s character, the slave auctioneer, is named Theophilius Freeman). This film creates conflicting emotions at times: you want to like original owner Ford, but he punishes Northup for defending himself and then sells him (in addition to owning slaves in the first place, which seems to clash with his nature); Northup repeatedly stands up against injustices, which makes you cheer, but the resulting brutal punishments make you wish he would stop drawing attention toward himself. Even the ending is bittersweet: Northup makes it back to his family, but the end credits reveal that Northup was unable to take legal action against his kidnappers and the man who ran the slave pen – because he was an African-American, Northup was unable to testify in the NATION’S CAPITOL.
RATING: Definitely see it before you die. Not a movie you want to watch repeatedly, but you won’t regret seeing it.