12 Years a Slave

DRAMA; 1hr 53min

STARRING: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender

Ties that bind: Ejiofor (left) and Fassbender

With shocking suddenness, violinist Solomon Northup (an overwhelming Ejiofor) is a free and happy family man in Saratoga, New York, one day and a shackled slave the next. Drugged and kidnapped, he is rechristened Platt Hamilton by the traders who strip him of his humanity and transport him to a Louisiana plantation. Solomon is now an anonymous commodity. In the pre–Civil War America of 1841, there is no one who will listen to him and nowhere for him to run.


Director Steve McQueen (Shame) has never shied away from darkness. With screenwriter John Ridley, he brings outraged weight to a shameful story — based on Solomon’s 1853 memoir — by sparing none of its wholesale cruelty, whose relentless pressure is an horrific and ironic contrast to the stately beauty of Sean Bobbitt’s contemplative cinematography.


Fassbender, always an arresting look in a McQueen production, reteams with the director for the third time as a repellent plantation owner. If he is the story’s monstrous whip hand, the soul-stirring Ejiofor is its battered and scarred heart, pounding resolutely through every crushing scene.