Top Ten Movies of 2013 — Number Eight

In some quarters, the effectiveness of 12 Years a Slave was attributed to the emotional distance director Steve McQueen had from the specter of American slavery, since he was born and raised in England. That theory ignores McQueen’s own record as a filmmaker, notably his willingness to deal with the ugliest, most painful aspects of human existence. 12 Years a Slave is grueling, but not necessarily more so than Hunger, McQueen’s depiction of the 1981 hunger strike by Bobby Sands in an Irish prison. For this effort, John Ridley’s screenplay takes the original memoir of the same name by Solomon Northrup and pulls into a comfortable cinematic narrative, one conventional enough that the parade of name actors in smallish roles evokes Oscar bait of years past. What elevates the film more than anything else is the conviction of McQueen hit the viewer with damning honesty. As Northrup, Chiwetel Ejiofor signals the dignified sense of sense and plain perseverance that carries him through the unthinkable brutality of life as a slave in the American south, supposedly made worse by Northrup’s abduction from life as a free man, but in actuality barbaric under any circumstances. Ejiofor doesn’t signal a great nobility of spirit, in the manner of many a similar drama of punishing tragedy, wisely opting to play his part as a man simply driven towards survival. Great as he is, Ejiofor is arguably bested by relative newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, whose performance as Patsey is resonant and individualistic while simultaneously serving as the film’s most all-encompassing portrait of the horrors of slavery, the one that is likely to fully and forever define the corrupt American episode for most. McQueen unites the pieces of his film with unflinching attention that never lapses into exploitation, even when he devotes his trademark long held shots to the most difficult portions of the film to watch, denying the viewer the mercy of discretion. This is as it should be. It’s the only proper way to honor those who endured the history.

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