Never one to shy away from blunt, picturesque excursions to the cruel side of human experience, English filmmaker Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) plunges us into pre-Civil-War America, where a cultured black “freedman” from upstate New York named Solomon Northup (actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into bondage in the plantations of Louisiana. In the screenplay by John Ridley, based on Northup’s 1853 memoir, Northup’s dignity in the face of humiliation is a given – much more interesting are the plentiful villains: Michael Fassbender as a sadistic, lustful, bible-thumping planter; Sarah Paulson as his jealous wife; Paul Dano as a bully with a whip; Paul Giamatti as a New Orleans slave dealer; Benedict Cumberbatch as a “kind” master, et al. But the predicaments of two female slaves are the most heartbreaking: Lupita Nyong’o as champion cotton picker and sexual plaything Patsey, and Alfre Woodard as Mrs. Shaw, married to her white master, sipping lemonade on her veranda. Sensational in the extreme, Northup’s 150-year-old ordeal stings and stuns. But it’s part of our history. Learn it (133 min.).
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