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

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

Movie Reviews

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

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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.


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.


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.


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.

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