’12 Years a Slave’ belongs in top 10

“Your story: It is amazing. And in no good way,” Bass (Brad Pitt) tells Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The same could be said for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave (4 stars), which will surely end up among the top 10 films of the year, worthy of an Oscar nomination for best picture.

It’s emotionally powerful because it takes its time, both thematically and visually. It lets the tragedy of Solomon’s situation sink in, for both him and us. One minute he’s being toasted in the North by his white friends, who tell him that his “talents are undeniable.” Just hours later, he’s being labeled a “runaway nigger from Georgia.”

Ejiofor gives arguably the best performance of the year so far, but not all the film’s actors are in that same league. Michael Fassbender, for instance, seems a bit out of his depth, perhaps because the story dwells far too long on his character’s relationship with the slave Patsey. The usually brilliant Paul Dano also seems a bit weaker than one would expect. Benedict Cumberbatch is excellent, though, as is Lupita Nyongo’o (Patsey). Sadly, Paul Giamatti’s brief appearance seems too contrived, as does some of the slightly stagey dialogue and heavyhanded direction. That heavyhandedness, however, is offset by some amazing visuals and two or three of the most memorable and heartbreaking scenes you will see in a cinema this year.

Though falling just short of greatness, 12 Years a Slave will perhaps be remembered for decades for one of the most honest depictions of pre-Civil War slavery ever caught on film. For every brutalized black slave there is one treated well, and for every angry white racist there is one such as Pitt’s character, who knows in his heart that “what is true and right is true and right for all.” After watching this film, I hope Quentin Tarantino is ashamed of Django Unchained.

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