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For A Free Spirit, A Grim '12 Years' In Chains

Chiwetel Ejiofor (left) plays Solomon Northup, a New York freeman kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and eventually resold to plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). (Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Just a few years before the start of the Civil War, two anti-slavery books became best-sellers in the United States. One was Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Harriet Beecher Stowe opus that went on to become the best-selling novel of the 19th century.

The other was a memoir with a mouthful of a title: Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New-York, kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and rescued in 1853 from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana.

Twelve Years a Slave — successful enough to prompt multiple editions before falling into obscurity after the war — was rediscovered by scholars in the 1960s and has now been transformed into a wrenching, soul-stirring film from British director Steve McQueen.

12 Years a Slave

  • Director: Steve McQueen
  • Genre: Biopic, drama
  • Running Time: 133 minutes

Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality

With: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch

(Recommended)

The film begins with an enslaved Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) cutting sugar cane on a Louisiana plantation, then flashes back to the life he'd been leading just a few years earlier in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. There, he was a musician of stature, living with his wife and three kids in comfort and even some luxury. A free black family in a state that did not allow slavery, they inhabited a world of learning and culture.

In fact it's Solomon's talent as a violinist that leads to his downfall. He accompanies two men to Washington for what he thinks is a fiddling job, only to have them get him drunk and betray him. New York has laws protecting its African-American residents. The nation's capital does not. He wakes up in chains.

Without papers to establish his identity, far from anyone who knows him, Solomon is helpless when his kidnappers rename him Platt and ship him off to Louisiana to be sold. As other desperate men in chains tell him, he'll be killed if he even says his real name, let alone tries to escape. Survival means "keeping your head down," he's told.

"I don't want to survive," he gasps. "I want to live."

Still, survival comes first. Sold to a Baptist preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch) who realizes there's more to him than meets the eye, and who treats him, as another slave puts it, like "prized livestock," Solomon does keep his head down. He bides his time, and urges others around him to do the same.

Inwardly, though, he's seething. And when another slave accuses him of truckling to his master, he roars, "My back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom."

McQueen keeps those scars — and the brutality that creates them — front and center in 12 Years a Slave, with incidents that scald, and searing supporting performances, particularly from Michael Fassbender (star of McQueen's previous art-house films Hunger and Shame) as a sadistic but strangely conflicted slave owner.

But it is Ejiofor — bewildered, sorely tested, morally towering — whose staggered dignity anchors the film.

John Ridley's script brings both historical sweep and an urgent intimacy to Northup's story — no small accomplishment. Rife with visceral beatings, multiple lynchings and an almost casual air of psychological cruelty, 12 Years a Slave is anything but easy to watch, but it is powerfully moving.

It's also a powerful corrective, because it so skillfully links that brutality to the sort of tranquil antebellum South that Hollywood has often peddled — the broad porches, the hoop skirts, the fields fluffy with cotton. It will be hard for audiences to see those images ever again without thinking about the savagery and injustice that propped them up.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Just a few years before the start of the Civil War, two anti-slavery books became bestsellers in the U.S. One was "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which was the best-selling novel of the 19th century. The other was a memoir called "12 Years A Slave" by Solomon Northup. Northup's story has now been made into a movie. At last month's Toronto Film Festival, it won the people's choice award. And critic Bob Mondello says it deserved it.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Solomon Northup lives with his wife and three kids in comfort and even some luxury in 1840s New York. A free black family in a state that does not allow slavery, they inhabit a world of learning and culture. In fact, it's Solomon's talent as a violinist that leads him into trouble. He accompanies two men to Washington for what he thinks is a fiddling job, only to have them get him drunk and betray him. New York has laws protecting its African-American residents, Washington does not. He wakes up in chains.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHRISTOPHER BERRY: (as James Burch) Well, boy, how you feel now?

CHIWETEL EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) My name is Solomon Northup. I'm a free man. And you have no right whatsoever to detain me.

BERRY: (as James Burch) You're no free man. You're nothing but a Georgia runaway.

MONDELLO: Without papers to establish his identity and far from anyone who knows him, Solomon is helpless when his kidnappers rename him Platt and ship him off to Louisiana to be sold. As other desperate men in chains tell him, he'll be killed if he even says his real name, let alone tries to escape.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

CHRIS CHALK: (as Clemens) Survival is not about certain death. It's about keeping your head down.

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) Days ago I was with my family, in my home. Now you're telling me all that's lost? Tell no one who I am, that's the way to survive? Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.

MONDELLO: Still, survival comes first. Sold to a Baptist preacher who realizes there's more to him than meets the eye, Solomon does keep his head down. As played by Chiwetel Ejiofor with shattered formality, he seethes and grieves but inwardly, biding his time and urging others to do the same.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "12 YEARS A SLAVE")

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) Eliza. Stop. Stop your whining. You let yourself be overcome by sorrow and you will drown in it.

ADEPERO ODUYE: (as Eliza) Have you stopped crying for your children?

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) They are (unintelligible)

ODUYE: (as Eliza) Then who is distressed? Do I have to serve the master and the mistress? Do you care less about my loss than their well-being?

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) Master Ford is a decent man.

ODUYE: (as Eliza) He is a slaver.

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) Under the circumstances.

ODUYE: (as Eliza) Under the circumstances, he is a slaver. Will you truckle at his boot? You luxuriate in his favor.

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) I survive. I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune.

ODUYE: (as Eliza) So you settle into your role as Platt then?

EJIOFOR: (as Solomon Northup) My back is thick with scars for protesting my freedom.

MONDELLO: British director Steve McQueen keeps those scars and the brutality that creates them front and center in "12 Years A Slave" with incidents that scald and searing performances. The filmmakers bring both historical sweep and an urgent intimacy to Northup's story, no small accomplishment.

With visceral beatings, lynchings and almost casual psychological cruelty, "12 Years A Slave" is not always easy to watch, but it is powerfully moving. And a powerful corrective because it so skillfully links brutality to the sort of tranquil, antebellum South that Hollywood has traditionally pedaled with its broad porches, hoopskirts and fields fluffy with cotton.

It'll be hard for audiences to see those images now without thinking about the savagery and injustice that propped them up.

I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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