Blu-ray Review: 12 Years a Slave

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As a showcase for intense acting, inspired storytelling, and historical import, 12 Years a Slave is first-rate in every way. The winner of three Academy Awards (out of a total of nine nominations), the film skillfully tells the true tale of a freeborn African American, Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped in 1841. Northup was subsequently forced into slavery, an ordeal that lasted a dozen years. The screenplay was adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s own memoir of the same name, first published in 1853. It’s a powder keg of a movie that shines an unflinching spotlight on the shameful tragedy of slavery in the United States.

One of the great strengths of the film is the complex variety of attitudes and behavior exhibited by its characters. Anyone assuming a straightforward, simplistic depiction of “good” and “evil” might be surprised. We initially see Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as a married man and father, a talented violinist, and someone who has no outward reason to be distrustful of the “artists” who offer him a promising gig in Washington D.C. Once he realizes he was drugged and kidnapped, it’s simply too late for him to do anything about it. His whole life has been ripped away from him and replaced with a nightmare, as he’s renamed “Platt” and sold into slavery in the Deep South. He is passed from plantation to plantation, experiencing treatment that ranges from relatively humane (strong emphasis on relatively) to downright sadistic.

12 Years 3 TMR.jpgHis early “owner” William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is one of the more recognizably human of slavers. Ford exhibits some degree of respect for Solomon, implementing his advice on engineering a better a way to transport logs. This occurs much to the chagrin of a white carpenter working on Ford’s plantation, John Tibeats (Paul Dano). Violence between the two men overwhelms the ultimately cowardly Ford’s ability to continue housing Solomon. Eventually he winds up “sold” to the monstrous Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally monstrous wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson). Here he works the cotton fields with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, an Oscar winner for her heartbreaking portrayal), a slave who endures repeated raping by the out-of-control Epps.

Director Steve McQueen (Shame) shows us a variety of behaviors from both the slaves and the slavers. We see the white men and women who believe that owning African Americans is a birthright bestowed by God. We also glimpse the indecision on the part of some whites who dare to question the system, ultimately finding their own lives endangered by their then-unpopular beliefs. McQueen also offers an array of nuances on the part of the victims. Some openly rebel against their captors, usually suffering permanent repercussions. Some are compliant, merely due to the utter helplessness of the unconscionable system into which they were born. Solomon Northup’s story is as riveting as it is emotionally exhausting, but ultimately a inspiring journey of perseverance under nearly insurmountable odds.

12 Years 1 TMR.jpg12 Years a Slave is an almost incongruously gorgeous film, with the natural beauty of its Louisiana locations contrasting sharply with the brutality of its characters’ actions. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt shot 12 Years on 35mm film and the results are a pleasure to take in on 20th Century Fox’s Blu-ray. Whether it’s the green layer of muck covering a bayou or muddy river waters churned by a paddle steamer, Bobbitt’s camera frequently lingers long enough for viewers to really soak in the fine detail.

While not the kind of film one reaches for to demo a home theater sound system, 12 Years contains a lossless DTS-HD MA 5.1 surround mix that goes just as far as it needs to. Many of the film’s most intense scenes play out in relative quietude, so surround activity is generally limited. Still, atmospheric sounds regularly filter through, never drawing attention away from the most important element: the dialogue. Actually, equally important are the visceral thumps of blunt objects and the crack of whips, all rendered with stomach-churning realism.

12 Years 2 TMR.jpgThere isn’t a plethora of special features here, but what’s included is useful. The primary bonus is a series of featurettes called “12 Year a Slave: A Historical Portrait” that can be played in succession for a total of about 40 minutes. It’s an informative peek at the making of the film. The eight-minute “The Team” focuses even more closely on the filmmakers. Han Zimmer’s music is discussed in the four-minute, appropriately-titled “The Score.” Aside from a theatrical trailer, that’s all she wrote.

If the Academy Awards mean anything at all, it’s a damn good thing 12 Years a Slave was recognized as Best Picture over its primary competitor, Gravity. While the latter was undeniably a spectacularly entertaining popcorn film, it was also essentially a technically-innovative but empty viewing experience. There’s nothing empty about 12 Years a Slave. While its intensity will likely prohibit it from ranking very high on many people’s “most watched Blu-rays” list, it’s a movie that everyone should see at least once.

Images: 20th Century Fox

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Chaz Lipp is a Seattle-based freelance writer whose focus is music and film. As “The Other Chad,” he has written for the online magazine Blogcritics since 2008. When he’s not writing, Chaz can be found trolling jazz clubs, attempting to find somewhere to play his sax (whether anyone wants to hear…

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