“Twelve Years” difficult to watch – still a must-see

I was a big fan of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion Of The Christ.” It laid bare the torture and suffering Jesus endured on our behalf. It was difficult to watch, and I don’t know that I ever want to see it again, but I’m certainly glad I saw it when it was released. I feel the same way about British director Steve McQueen’s latest film, “Twelve Years A Slave,” based on the true story of a free man captured and sold into slavery in 1841. As with “The Passion,” parts of “Twelve Years” are difficult viewing, but I was certainly glad I saw this likely Best Picture winner.

Solomon Northrup was a free man living in Saratoga, N. Y., who was drugged by two hucksters and sold into slavery. His 12-year saga exposes the absolute horror of the slavery industry in the American South. We’ve all learned about the dehumanization, mental anguish, and physical torment endured by slaves, but this picture forces us to confront slavery in a way not seen before on the big screen. Whereas Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained” was a

two-hour joke of a film about a slave who conquered his plantation masters, “Twelve Years” takes slavery very seriously. There is no director grinning on the sidelines as we cheer on a rewriting of history. This is slavery exposed as the cruel, unforgiving, barbarism that it was.

Northrup’s first stop is a slave-trading market in New Orleans, featuring a scene in which a mother is separated from her young children, as they are sent to different plantations. The agony she endures rivals that of Meryl Streep in “Sophie’s Choice.” Northrup is purchased by plantation owner William Ford, whose slave driver, (known as “overseer” in the pre-Civil-War South) John Tibeats, is a downright scary guy played to the hilt by the great character actor Paul Dano.

Where Tibeats is definitely a thorn in the side of any slave under his jurisdiction, Northrup’s next slave driver is absolute horror personified. Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a man so cruel he savagely beats slaves for not picking enough cotton in a day. His evil wife, played by Sarah Paulson, requests slave beatings on a whim. And the female slaves are treated worse than the men. It’s difficult to watch, and it’s difficult for Northrup to keep his sanity through such a life of living hell, but his desire to be reunited with his wife and children gives him the strength required to face each new day with his chin up and his head held high.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and make a connection between two films which at first seem as different as night and day, but I believe the sequel to “Twelve Years” has already been made. It was out a year ago, and it was called “Lincoln,” Steven Spielberg’s account of how our greatest president used every ounce of political savvy to convince a lame-duck Congress to outlaw slavery once and for all. “Twelve Years A Slave” exposes the repugnance of American slavery – an industry begging for a just and permanent conclusion. “Lincoln” shows us how a humble Midwesterner, never personally exposed to the abhorrence of slavery, risked his life to stop it.

At this point in the season, I can’t imagine a better picture coming along in 2013. “Twelve Years” should have the early lock on the Best Picture Oscar, and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance is worthy of the Best Actor award. Either Sarah Paulson or, perhaps more likely, Lupita Nyong’o (who plays Patsy, a fellow slave and the frequent object of Epps’ passion) could walk away with Best Supporting Actress.

This is shaping up to be the best Oscar season in years, but I believe I’ve seen the winner here. “Twelve Years A Slave” is brutal, shocking and heartbreaking. But it’s one that should be seen.