The raves for Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” are completely accurate, I am happy to report. From a book published in 1853, McQueen has made– with screenwriter John Ridley and an amazing cast– the “Schindler’s List” of the black experience.
If you think it took around 30 years to get from “Fiddler on the Roof”– the sentimental account of the Jewish experience– to “Schindler’s List,” then it’s about the same amount of time since “Roots” told the gauzy version of slavery in America.
There is no kindly plantation owner in “12 Years a Slave” who’s coming to save everyone. You get that right away. This is the unvarnished and unflinching story. Yes “Django Unchained” was funny. But this movie offers no escape routes. If you are in a theater, you can look away occasionally, but you can’t retreat to humor for a respite. McQueen and Ridley have just laid the whole bare.
So the story is about Solomon Northrup, a black musician and Free Man in 1841, living in Saratoga, New York. He is successful and respected, has a beautiful wife and children. But he is lured to Washington DC and kidnapped into slavery–a rare story but a true one and Northrup published a memoir in 1853 about what happened to him. And that was seven years before the Civil War.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, long a favorite actor of everyone’s, is Solomon in a performance that will likely win him a Best Actor nomination and maybe a win. Remember this name. You’ve seen him in a lot of movies including a favorite of mine called “Talk to Me” with Don Cheadle. Ejiofor is only 36; I thought he was older because he’s had such a big following. His remarkable work here is going to be the talk of the year.
The other outstanding newcomer here is Lupita Nyong’o who plays a save girl routinely abused by her masters (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson, each excellent). Lupita is the breakout star of 2013, easily on her way to Best Supporting Actress nominations. (She can’t beat Oprah, but she’ll be in the mix.)
From there the supporting performances are all top notch, from Paul Giamatti to Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Scoot McNairy, and a knockout cameo from Alfre Woodard.
The truth of “12 Years a Slave” is going to resonate same as “The Butler,” I think. And if that’s so, the box office will be just as big. This season we’re getting a huge chunk of Black History all at once, which is fascinating, In historical order it’s “12 Years a Slave,” “The Butler,” “Mandela,” and “Fruitvale Station.” For so long– forever, actually– these stores were not told at all or represented in the culture. Now we’re getting a dam breaking, and the results are very exciting. They are all going to be in the Oscar mix too.
PS Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B, is the main producer. Pitt makes an extended cameo, and he’s very good. I can’t imagine anyone at a major studio funding this project without a star of Pitt’s caliber behind it. Kudos to him and his group.