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12 YEARS A SLAVE: 4 ½ STARS. “uncompromising story about will, suffering and injustice.”

12-Years-A-SlaveThere’s a key line near the beginning of “12 Years a Slave, “ the new drama from “Shame” director Steve McQueen. Shortly after being shanghaied from his comfortable life as a freeman into a life of slavery Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) declares, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

Based on Northup’s 1853 memoir the movie is an uncompromising story about will, suffering and injustice.

The film begins in 1841 in Saratoga, New York. Northup is a respected member of the community, an educated family man and talented musician. His journey into hell begins when he accepts a gig to provide music for a traveling magic show. While on the road he is sold into slavery by two unscrupulous men and shipped from the safety of the northern states into the south’s servitude.

Torn from his wife (Ashley Dyke) and two kids (Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler) he is sold from plantation to plantation, all the while hiding his education and literacy in an effort to deflect the attentions of his overseers and owners.

No matter how bad his situation, and it is dire, he never gives up his will to live and his dream of making his way back to the north and his family.

Unflinching in its portrayal of brutality, “12 Years a Slave,” is a grim document of man’s inhumanity and twisted justification—“A man can do whatever he wants with his property,” spits Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender)—that serves as a primer of pain and cruelty suffered by those pressed into slavery.

Powerful situations and performances abound.

An excruciating lynching scene is all the more powerful because of McQueen’s quiet, unblinking camera. As Northup struggles with a rope around his neck McQueen pulls back, showing the complete diorama, with people going about their day, children playing and white owners gazing passively at the man as he fights for breath. It’s an unforgettable sequence that hammers home the horror of how commonplace this unspeakable behavior was.

The movie is ripe with such scenes that bring the true terror and pain felt by Northup. Its not easy viewing but it is effective, brought alive by interesting work from Paul Giamatti as a slave trader who says his sentiment for those he buys and sells, “extends the length of a coin,” Benedict Cumberbatch, Northup’s first and kindest master and Fassbender, the personification of cruel and unusual.

Paul Dano, Brad Pitt and Lupita Nyong’o also add much, but the core of the movie is Ejiofor’s passionate work as a man forced into unimaginable circumstances. Simultaneously vulnerable and defiant he delivers a deeply layered performance that is sure to earn him the notice he has deserved for years given his work in movies like “Dirty Pretty Things” and “Children of Men.”

“12 Years a Slave” is a harrowing, stark movie that is equal parts educational and devastating.

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