12 Years a Slave
Director Steve McQueen’s new film recounts the agonizing ordeal of a prosperous and well-educated African-American, a freed man named Solomon Northup, who was shanghaied back into slavery for more than a decade in pre-Civil War U.S. As such, 12 Years a Slave is a sometimes grueling history lesson that pays graphic attention to the physical cruelties as well as the legal and moral injustices of the slavery system. A certain weakness for punishing realism might have been fatal, were it not for the brilliancies of characterization that bring the whole thing back to life just as a grim despondency threatens to take over. Ultimately, the prime example of that brilliance comes via Solomon Northup himself (Chiwetel Ejiofor). The movie, which portrays Solomon as refusing to be defined by his own victimhood, finds its most powerful and incisive dramatics in the tragic ironies of the man’s struggle not just to survive but to preserve a sense of dignity and self in the midst of soul-crushing cruelties. Paradise Cinema 7. Rated R.