Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is most definitely not a fun night at the movies. It is a bravely unflinching, emotionally violent glimpse into one of America’s darkest periods. It will leave you feeling haggard and raw. It will shatter your heart with the subtlety of a ball peen hammer. And it is brilliant.

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12 Years a Slave tells the true story adapted from the self penned memoirs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African American free man living in upstate New York with his wife and children in the 1840’s. Solomon is a well liked, well educated and highly regarded member of society, widely known for his talent with a violin. But when he gets duped into travelling to Washington under the pretenses of a high paying musical gig, he ends up kidnapped, thrust into irons and sold into slavery in the American South under a different name, purely because he matches some vague description of another man. And thus begins more than a decade of Solomon attempting to survive, both physically and spiritually, the litany of inhuman abuse directed at him and other African American slaves around him.

To call this film an opus of human suffering is not too hyperbolic, I would think. The atrocities – some at the end of a whip, hangman’s rope or even tongue – committed against Solomon and his fellow slaves often turn the stomach, and McQueen forces us to bear witness to the savagery, his camera very rarely shying away. But this is not a celebration of violence simply for the glee of crimson flows and rent backs. This is meant to shock and inform.

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And through all this human horror, Oscar nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor turns in an astounding performance that attacks your heart like weaponized anguish. His Solomon is ramrod proud, intelligent and possessed of a quiet nobility, all things that do not make his life under the red-tinged boot heels of various plantation owners in the sweaty hell of Louisiana any easier. And when this man’s spirit is eventually broken, yours will break right along with it. Ejiofor has always been a superb actor, but this is a career defining performance that deserves every bit of its current awards praise.

And right up alongside him on that pedestal can be found his co-stars, Michael Fassbender and Lupita Nyong’o, who both also steal the limelight at various times, and for completely different reasons. For Fassbender, its easy to dismiss this as just another in a long line of incredible performances, but this is a different animal. As the unrelentingly harsh cotton plantation owner, Edwin Epps, Fassbender is a whirlwind of booze soaked violent rages and sweaty, simmering evil, tinged with just enough humanity by the obsessive infatuation and rare moments of compassion he has for one of his slave girls, Patsey, played with a heartbreaking loss of innocence by Nyong’o. In many ways, hers is the more tragic story here, and Nyong’o, despite her slight frame and pixie-ish features, turns in a gigantic performance that towers over many.

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Rounding out the cast are a list of notable names such as Benedict Cumberbatch as the honourable and compassionate “under the circumstances” slave owner Ford, Paul Dano as the slimy and petulant slave overseer Tibeats, Adepero Oduye as a grieving slave torn from her children, Paul Giamatti as a sneering and snarling slave trader, Brad Pitt as the righteous Canadian builder, Bass, and Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps, the violently jealous and horrifically cold wife of Fassbender’s character. With the exception of Dano, whose character sometimes ends up too close to being cartoonishly evil – though that may be the fault of John Ridley’s otherwise superb script pegging the character almost as caricature –  everybody turns in rock solid performances.

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The only other slight blemish on the film, I feel, is surprisingly the score by the legendary Hans Zimmer, which while effective, sounds completely recycled from his previous work. Although, this may not be a problem for those of you not counted among his die-hard fans.

McQueen creates a film that is filled with the ugliness of man, yet he and regular cinematographer Sean Bobbit shoots it all beautifully, bringing to life the harsh, otherworldly beauty of the American South. But as gorgeous as the film is to look at, paradoxically it is also one that will often have audience members frequently having to stifle the urge to look away. Filled to bursting with tragedy, it is one of the most uncompromisingly uncomfortable films – physically and emotionally – that I’ve seen in a long time, and I highly recommend that you experience it as well.

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Last Updated: January 21, 2014

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Kervyn Cloete

A man of many passions - but very little sleep - I've been geeking out over movies, video games, comics, books, anime, TV series and lemon meringues as far back as I can remember. So show up for the geeky insight, stay for the delicious pastries.

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