12 Years a Slave
Yes, British director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is as harrowing and horrifying as you have heard. It is also brave, sure and amazingly poetic, a stunning achievement in de-romanticizing America's "peculiar institution." The scenes of violence and human degradation on Southern plantations during the 1840s and '50s are truly and justifiably disturbing, but the words spoken by the film's astonishing troupe of actors -- Chiwetel Ejiofor as the slave of the title who was a free man in New York sold into bondage, Michael Fassbender as his savage master, Sarah Paulson as his master's bitter and vengeful wife, and the amazing Lupita Nyong'o as his master's tortured concubine -- are nearly Shakespearean. To some ears, the script written by American John Ridley, might seem unnaturally stagy but for me it raised the aura of the film above "pornography of despair" to something much grander -- nearly biblical. I loved listening to the characters speak just as much as I loathed watching the brutality inflicted by and upon them. It might be true that the language and the film's cinematic elegance and elliptical structure allow viewers to safely distance themselves from what they are seeing, but, to my mind, the only way to fully process the terror on the screen is from that dramatic distance. None of this is to say this is a weakness of the film. In fact, it might be its greatest strength and what will win it every major award this year. Bravo. Highly Recommended.