“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” These words are the key to understanding this film. It stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, a free black Northerner kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. During the course of this harrowing and brutal sojourn Solomon refuses to allow his spirit to be broken. He will escape, and when he returns home, he will be the man he was. Or such is his intent.
The film simmers with suppressed emotion. This emotion occasionally boils over, often with disastrous results. Hope, lust, greed, violence, and hatred; all of these are powerfully felt in the film. It is in many ways brutal, in many ways harsh, and yet there is at times a strange beauty to it. Emotion exists here as it does in few films. As a viewer one is gripped by that emotion, shaken by it, and then set down at the end changed in some way. Or at least that was my experience of it.
The script is excellent, although in some ways the language is that of the times. The
cinematography is very well down, really capturing both the moistness of the southern swamps and the dryness of the sun on blighted crops. In acting the film truly shines, as Ejiofor’s performance is masterful. Supporting him are a host of other actors, especially Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps; several of the film’s most powerful sequences are created by the interplay between these actors.
A word of caution: this film is certainly only for mature audiences. There is some nudity, a heavy use of racial slurs, but most of all there is brutal violence. There are beatings, hangings, and a very prolonged scene of a whipping and its aftermath. However, if you can stand to look- and since the best way not to repeat history is to know it, we all should look- this a powerful and important film to watch and should not be missed.
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