“Gone with the Wind,” “Casablanca,” “Schindler’s List,” “Forrest Gump” and “The Hurt Locker” — these films all have the same distinction. Each, in turn, won the Academy Award for best picture.
The most recent film to join this prestigious category was the historical drama “12 Years a Slave.” Directed by acclaimed British filmmaker, screenwriter and producer Steve McQueen — not to be confused with the famous actor of the same name — “12 Years a Slave” features an extraordinary cast and tells a gut-wrenching true story.
His name was Solomon Northup. He had been born free in New York, where he made a life for himself, his wife and his two children until he was betrayed and kidnapped into slavery. The harrowing story was captured in Northup’s memoir and painstakingly re-created on film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup. He carries the audience along on his capable shoulders. Also British-born, Ejiofor has an impressive filmography, but his understated turn as Northup is definitely a career best. I look forward to his future projects.
Also in the cast is Lupita Nyong’o, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actress for her role as Patsey, beating out both Julia Roberts and Jennifer Lawrence for the statuette.
Nyong’o has praised costar Michael Fassbender for helping her with her challenging performance. This week, Nyong’o was chosen as People Magazine’s most beautiful woman. As for Fassbender, though no stranger to complicated roles, this one was one of his most despicable.
Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano (“Prisoners”), Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Brad Pitt also star in the film.
It was difficult not to compare “12 Years a Slave” to “Django Unchained.” Though very different in tone, what interests me in the comparison of the two is that “12 Years” is massively more haunting and raw than Tarantino’s offering, which went for the throat when it came to style and shock value. In my opinion, “12 Years” wins any contest between the two.
I am definitely a fan.
Small spoiler ahead: In one scene, Northup is lynched from a low-hanging tree limb. Fatefully, it hangs low enough to save his life as he balances precariously on his tiptoes. I was tempted to count the seconds as he hangs there, straining every muscle. Around him, slaves return to work as if he isn’t there. Only one woman dares to bring him a drink of water, but even she abandons him there to wait for a white man’s decision as to whether he should live or die. It was during that scene that I felt “12 Years” earned its Oscar.
McBrayer normally also does a video review of movies. This week, however, a sore throat kept her out of the studio.