Movie Review: ‘12 Years a Slave’ a masterpiece

Years ago, I heard a speaker refer to slavery in the United States as “the American holocaust.”

Anyone skeptical about that term should read Frederick Douglass’s 1845 autobiography – or see “12 Years a Slave.”

But you’d better have a strong stomach.

Brutal, authentic and utterly enthralling, Steve McQueen’s film about Solomon Northup is a masterpiece.

Northup was a free northern black who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana, where he endured years of inhuman labor and savage beatings.

Northup’s 1855 memoir was the basis for this film, which follows his story pretty closely; the saga, after all, is plenty horrific without the usual Hollywood embellishments.

Indeed, director McQueen’s best decision was to get out of the way, avoiding melodrama and histrionics; even the monstrous violence – though difficult to watch – is presented without gratuitousness or exploitation. (Ditto the brief but frank nudity.)

The film proceeds sedately, covering the thorny ethics of surviving in slavery, and imbuing simple objects like soap, dying embers and a broken violin with symbolic resonance; yet scarcely one of its 133 minutes fails to command unwavering attention.

I predict Oscar noms for Best Picture, Director and Adapted Screenplay – and a Best Actor nod for Chiwetel Ejiofor.

He too never sensationalizes his protagonist. In some scenes we must read into his grief-hardened features just what he’s feeling; in others, the pain and rage run down his face in sweat and tears, particularly when Northup is forced to lash his fellow slave, Patsey, and in the resolution, which recalls the similarly cathartic ending of “Captain Phillips.”

And keep an eye out, at Oscar time, for newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, who is flat-out brilliant as Patsey, both the apple of her master’s eye and the object of his vicious rage – along with that of his jealous and disgusted wife.

Other fine support is provided by Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender.

Hans Zimmer’s score runs from lurching torment to sweeping, soaring strings; and the cinematography provides glimpses of bayou beauty that tend to soothe the sizzling horror.

Along the same lines, “12 Years” wisely provides characters – one of them white – who speak against slavery and its cruelties.

And like Douglass, the film reveals how this godless institution was sanctioned by the church, with overseers using Scripture to justify their abuse.

Yet anti-slavery characters also speak the language of religion, foretelling Biblical judgment on slavers and insisting that before God, everyone is the same.

Again as in Douglass, this gives the film a balanced sobriety; despite the explosive subject matter, it never feels like a hateful screed against all whites or all church-goers.

Tough as it is to sit through, “12 Years” sets a new benchmark in films about slavery; it may be quite a while before anything surpasses it.

But it won’t be long before folks can pronounce the name Ejiofor.

And probably Nyong’o as well.