PAnews.com, Port Arthur, Texas

November 15, 2013

“12 Years” deserves its Oscar buzz

Sean McBride
The Port Arthur News

— “12 Years a Slave” is one of the year’s best films, but also one of the year’s most difficult films to sit through. This based-on-a-true-story biography is both a heroic tale of survival as well as a shocking descent into the depths of human cruelty. It will surely be on my list of the year’s best films, although it’s not a film that I ever want to sit through again.

Based on the best-selling but somewhat forgotten memoir of Solomon Northrop, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the central character, a free black man living in New York in 1841. He is tricked into traveling to Washington where his companions get him drunk, change his name and sell him off into the slave plantation system in Louisiana.

The story follows this cultured black man as he is subjected to all the horrors of slavery. The violence, humiliation and casual cruelty of his captors make “12 Years a Slave” into a searing indictment of slavery that is far and away more memorable than any other film I can recall.

Credit Ejiofor for the powerful central performance that anchors the film. His struggle to maintain his dignity while enduring the atrocity of slavery is destined to be remembered at this year’s Academy Awards. His supporting cast will probably garner multiple acting awards as well, especially Lupita Nyong’o, who turns in a career-making performance here.

Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson play the despicable plantation owners who physically and psychologically torment Northrop. Much like Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List,” their evil permeates the film. The best heroes are the ones who can deal with strong bad guys, and these are two very good villainous performances, although it’s difficult to ascribe anything good to either character.

If you can pull yourself out of the story, the technical credits are also deserving of praise. “12 Years a Slave” features striking cinematography that frequently juxtaposes the beauty of the Southern plantations with the striking ugliness of slavery.  That contrast adds to the film’s power, locking a memorable image into your mind that will forever accompany your emotional memories of the film.

I was also impressed by Hans Zimmers ominous musical score that sets the mood perfectly. There’s no bombast this time around, just an aural tone of disquiet that puts the audience on edge. Mix in the ever-present sounds of human suffering, and you have a film that assaults your senses, adding impact to the story that is already tough enough.

Director Steve McQueen has assembled a superb collection of actors and behind-the-scenes craftsmen in service to this difficult, but amazing movie. “12 Years a Slave” is the film to beat at the upcoming Oscars, providing that the Academy voters are able to cope with their visceral reactions to this outstanding movie.

Movie reviews by Sean, “The Movie Guy,” are published bi-weekly in “The Port Arthur News” and seen weekly on KFDM-TV and KBOI 2-TV. Sean welcomes your comments via email at smcbride@kboi2.com.