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12 Years Of Slave

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After "Django Unchained" and Lee Daniels' "The Butler," both informed by the shameful legacy of slavery and institutionalized injustice in America, you might think you have satisfied your quota of viewing incidents of racial hatred, sexual abuse and ugly brutality in the past year.

For once, history is presented as personal and immediate, not a saga relying on scholarly works and court records à la "Amistad." The source is a rare first-hand account based on the best-selling 19th-century memoir written by Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York who suddenly had his liberty torn away after being kidnapped and sold for slave labor in Louisiana.

Like Lee Daniels in "The Butler," McQueen capitalizes on his growing rep to stack the casting deck with recognizable faces, many plucked from the indie universe. Paul Giamatti lends a grubby gruffness to his all-business slave trader. Benedict Cumberbatch is Northup's first master, the (comparatively) kindly William Ford, who treats Solomon and his skills as a violinist and craftsman with respect while wrestling with the contradictions that their relationship presents.

Paul Dano performs his nasty plantation overseer John Tibeats, who considers Northup's every move a personal affront, with all the hysteria he afforded his preacher in "There Will Be Blood," plus a sadistic streak. "Mad Men" costar Bryan Batt invests his Judge Turner with effeminate affectations, while Alfre Woodard's fancy lady slyly sips her tea at her leisure as an ex-slave who uses marriage as a passage to freedom. There is even room for "Beasts of the Southern Wild"'s Dwight Henry (as a slave) and Quvenzhané Wallis (as Northup's daughter).

But by the time that Brad Pitt, one of the film's producers, arrives late in the tale with a highly disruptive cameo as a Canadian carpenter who provides hope to Northup that the end to his decade-plus nightmare is nigh, most viewers will be too overwhelmed and stunned to much care. And as they wipe their tears and gather the strength to leave their seats, their minds will be filled with one thought: That they have actually witnessed American slavery in all its appalling horror for the very first time.

Susan Wloszczyna spent much of her nearly thirty years at USA TODAY as a senior entertainment reporter. Now unchained from the grind of daily journalism, she is ready to view the world of movies with fresh eyes.

"Although often dismissed as mere antislavery propaganda, the widespread consumption of slave narratives in the nineteenth-century U.S. and Great Britain and their continuing prominence today testify to the power of these texts to provoke reflection and debate."

Parents need to know that 12 Years a Slave is a harrowing, moving drama based on a book written in the 1850s by Solomon Northup recounting his experiences as a slave, and it can be difficult to watch. There are scenes that show extreme brutality (beatings, hangings) and rough language (the use of the "N" word), and extreme emotional cruelty. Expect some slave market nudity, plus the sexual assault of a slave by a master. Very young teens and tweens may find it too intense, but older teens should watch it to bear witness to a tragic part of American history.

An accomplished violinist and free man living in the state of New York, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) agrees in 1841 to tour with two gentlemen and perform while his family is away visiting relatives. Sadly, they were no gentlemen and there was no tour. Instead, they kidnap him, sneak him to the South and sell him as a slave. No matter how many times Northup says he's a free man, no one believes him, least of which the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who insists on naming him "Platt." His first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), means well, but is scared off by neighbors who won't let him be kind to his workers. Northup's second master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is a forbidding, troubled taskmaster who preys on a female slave, P


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