‘12 Years a Slave’ horrifically upsetting, but must be seen

Benedict Cumberbatch and Chiwetel Ejiofor in ‘12 Years a Slave.’ Rated R, 134 min. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013.

The stunning acting in “12 Years a Slave” – especially the award-caliber performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o – is second to none. Writer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen have crafted a modern classic that has both a poetically beautiful visual style and a gut-punching sense of realistic immediacy.

Before the Civil War, a free black man named Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) living with his family in upstate New York and making a living as a musician is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. He is passed as property from distant salesman (Paul Giamatti) to  a gentleman (Benedict Cumberbatch) to an angry sadist (Michael Fassbender). Paul Dano and Fassbender will stick in your mind as two of film history’s nastiest movie villains, and Nyong’o leaves a searing impression as a determined, long-suffering slave named Patsey.

The hateful violence is upsetting, but more horrific still is that the film is based on the memoir of the real Northup, who endured the physical and psychological torture for more than a decade. A film this intense demands to be viewed and discussed, and it won’t let you get away without being moved.

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