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‘12 Years’ examines historical brutalities

Making a good movie about slavery is no easy task. Achieving historical accuracy demands a disturbing portrayal of brutality and injustice. Contemporary audiences seek entertainment and inspiration. “12 Years a Slave” skillfully walks this line, combining a stirring personal narrative with realistic exposition.

But “12 Years a Slave,” playing this week at the Avon Cinema, is more than a good movie about slavery. In a genre unconscionably underrepresented due to common discomfort with the topic, this slavery film is striking in its uncompromising frankness. “12 Years” doesn’t simply allow audiences to experience an important discomfort — it demands it.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the protagonist Solomon Northup, a free black man living with his family in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1841. The film opens with smooth-talking white men kidnapping and selling Northup into slavery in the South. The title tells the rest.

Filtering the suffering of millions through the life of one is a choice often made by filmmakers trying to make sense of historical tragedies without overwhelming viewers with an unimaginable scale of human suffering. Facts and figures are replaced by an intimate relationship with Northup, a daring endeavor strengthened by the film’s opening statement that his is based on a true story.

Director Steve McQueen pulls off the feat beautifully. The camera remains in constant motion, following Northup with abundant close-ups, giving viewers no choice but to directly inhabit his world.

Ejiofor acts as a well-spoken yet often silent guide through this world. His excellent performance is initially subtle and almost under-acted, and his character’s resolve to retain his dignity comes across only through monotonous facial expressions of determination.

But as he ages, his resolve frays and his determination turns to desperation. Viewers realize they are watching the emotional arc of a man facing hardship as inconceivable to him as it is to them. Ejiofor more than earns his critical acclaim through each imploring gaze at the world as it demeans him.

Though Northup is the protagonist, he does not own the story. McQueen focuses just as much on the white men, brilliantly portrayed by the likes of Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano and Benedict Cumberbatch. The irony of men preaching the Bible out of one hand and delivering sadistic beatings with the other is chilling.

McQueen realizes the need to understand the thought processes of men responsible for and witness to this institution in order to understand slavery. Even the white “savior” of the story, Pitt’s character, demonstrates the hypocrisy of the most vocal abolitionists who were hesitant to take real action.

The film does not shy away from slavery’s inherent violence. Long stretches dedicated to the monotony of the institution are interrupted by jarring brutality, including one particularly disturbing whipping scene — among the most difficult scenes this reviewer has ever watched.

“12 Years a Slave” obsesses over contrasts — the contrast between what a slave owner says he is doing for God and what he does to people, the contrast between human beings and property, the supposed contrast between white and black.

McQueen impresses this final contrast on his audience. He utilizes bright white light in scenes otherwise enveloped by darkness to feature Northup and other slaves in their struggles, destroying any notion of light as good and dark as evil.

It is this questioning of cinematic stereotypes that makes “12 Years a Slave” as much a current discussion as a reflection on the past — one that necessitates viewing, however uncomfortable it may be.