Based on the true memoir of Solomon Northup, “12 Years a Slave” tells it like it was, with all the welts, whippings, rapes and white-on-black madness that made American pre- Civil War plantation life a horror on par with the Holocaust.
It’s 1841 and Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an African-American, is enjoying a celebrated life as a free man and virtuoso violinist with his wife and two children in Saratoga, N.Y. Then, he accepts an offer he should have refused: a gig at a circus in Washington D.C. After an evening of eating and drinking with his white sponsors, he awakes to discover he’s in shackles and about to begin his brutal new career as a beast of burden.
Sold on the block by an ice-cold auctioneer (Paul Giamatti), Northup (renamed, “Patti”) moves from Master to Master, plantation to plantation, like so much cattle or commerce. His owners vary in degrees of cruelty, the pinnacle of sadistic pain perpetrated by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps has a special torment, in that he is in love with pretty slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who won’t return his affection when raped. His wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), is a deadly dark Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern Belle with no redeeming values, sustained by jealousy and hatred for poor Patsey.
While 1939’s “Gone With the Wind” still reigns as Hollywood filmmaking at its height, “12 Years a Slave” pulls off the Technicolor scab to reveal the ugliness of the enforced servitude that allowed the myth of Southern Aristocracy to flourish.
Don’t wait for “Gone With the Wind II.”