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12 Years a Slave(2013)
Based on an incredible true story of one man's fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty, as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon's chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist will forever alter his life.
For more about 12 Years a Slave and the 12 Years a Slave Blu-ray release, see 12 Years a Slave Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on February 25, 2014 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Starring: Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams
Director: Steve McQueen (III)
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12 Years a Slave Blu-ray Review
The land of the free?
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, February 25, 2014
There's a strain of thought that runs through the American body politic that since we are self-evidently "the greatest country on the earth", any perceived "minor" peccadilloes from our nation's past are easily forgotten and/or forgiven. This somewhat odd tendency raises its head most obviously in the treatment of Native Americans and, of course, slavery. It's not hard to find pundits on television to this day urging members of either ethnicity to more or less "get over it", move on with their lives and not dwell on long ago historical "anomalies". Putting aside George Santayana's famous maxim "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it" for a moment, there seems to be a sometimes odd combination of jingoism and willful denial of history in some reactions to horrifying events like slavery. But is it also somehow related to the passage of time? Would anyone, even the most callous suggesting that African Americans should not still be bringing up the horrors of slavery, ever think of telling a Holocaust survivor to "get over it"? Whatever the reason for this perhaps strange tendency, spending a bit over two hours with 12 Years a Slave should provide ample opportunity for most viewers to realize there's still a lot to learn about long ago historical tragedies—but perhaps not always in the way one might imagine.
While the disgusting practice of slavery is portrayed in all its disturbing dementia throughout the film, what's really remarkable about this true life tale is how it quietly, firmly but undeniably posits the resiliency of the human spirit against almost insurmountable odds. The story of Solomon Northup, told by Northup himself, was a cause célèbre in the mid-19th century, a literary phenomenon perhaps second only to Uncle Tom's Cabin. The fact that Northup's harrowing story was true, unlike that of Harriet Beecher Stowe, only gave more power to its gut wrenching tale of a free black man abducted and sold into slavery, spending the next dozen years enduring all sorts of degradation and trauma. Rather interestingly, despite its renown at the time of its publication and for several years afterward, the book fell into obscurity and it wasn't until the mid-20th century that two scholars published an annotated version of it, at which point it started climbing once again into the general public consciousness. Though few probably remember it, there was actually a prior screen adaptation of Northup's book, a 1984 PBS made for television film entitled Solomon Northup's Odyssey, directed by iconic photographer Gordon Parks and starring future Star Trek: Deep Space Nine player Avery Brooks as Northup. That outing, much like the novel, fell into obscurity and for many 12 Years a Slave will be their introduction to one of the most amazing true life tales in the entire annals of history.
Part of what makes 12 Years a Slave such a harrowing experience is the almost Kafka-esque sensibility it offers where a seemingly prosperous, well educated black man is suddenly kidnapped and thrust into a life of slavery over which he has absolutely no control. As Director Steve McQueen states in one of the supplements on this Blu-ray, that very plot point creates an automatic identification with most audience members, as they, too, will be wondering how they, free people that they are, would react if put in similar circumstances.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a dapper musician and carpenter living in upstate New York with his wife and two small children. His wife leaves once a year for a cooking job, and takes the kids with her. During her absence, Solomon is approached by two men who have heard of his fiddle playing expertise, and they offer him a large sum of money to accompany them to Washington, D.C. to perform in a circus they manage. Though it's not really explicitly documented in the film, the two are actually part of a ring that drugged free blacks and sold them into slavery. After a night of heavy drinking, Solomon finds himself in chains in a hovel on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. Almost before he knows what's happening (but after he's been beaten rather savagely, letting him know his new lot in life), he's on a boat to the American south, where hope of escape is minimal.
Given the new name of Platt, Solomon passes through the hands of a mercenary middleman ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), and becomes a firsthand witness to some of the horrors of slavery when a mother is torn from her screaming children and sold, along with "Platt", to a plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford turns out to be a relatively benign master, and he takes a shine to Platt when Platt reveals some of his engineering prowess and helps forge some barge traffic through what had been assumed was impenetrable swampland. That only alienates the lizard like plantation hand Tibeats (Paul Dano), who becomes obsessed with proving he is Platt's superior. That ultimately leads to one of the most disturbing sequences in the film, when Platt is nearly lynched, and is then left hanging by his tiptoes for an interminable amount of time while a foreman goes in search of Ford.
Ford realizes Platt is no longer safe with him, and perhaps against his better judgment, sells Platt to a martinet slave owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is everything Ford was not—moody, vicious and somewhat delusional, feeling his behavior is Biblically sanctioned. Epps has engaged in a longstanding relationship with slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), which only creates incredible tension with Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson), who alternately insists Epps get rid of the girl (which he resfuses to do), or resorts to attacking the helpless slave. Still, Platt somehow manages to survive, if just barely.
Years pass, and he thinks he has the chance to get a secret letter to his family in New York (the real life Solomon Northup evidently was able to get a letter to his family within a short time of being taken captive, but they had no idea where he had been transported to as a slave and so were unable to find him). That turns into one of the most emotionally devastating scenes in the film, when Epps finds out and confronts Platt, forcing Platt to recant and play the "good slave". Soon salvation appears, though, in a worker (played by Brad Pitt) hired by Epps who is a rare voice of reason in the almost unbelievably barbaric world of slavery that the South had come to think of as "normal".
12 Years a Slave is a completely unsettling experience, though its depiction of the resilience and ultimate triumph of the human spirit is incredibly uplifting. McQueen occasionally overplays his hand here, though, which is perhaps the only real critique that can be offered this otherwise devastating experience. The character of Tibeats is almost cartoonishly villainous, something brought to bear in the early montage of a completely offensive song the character sings while a series of images of slave labor plays out. The film also is a bit screed like in its insistence that Bible thumping Southerners repeatedly bent scripture to their own advantage, drumming into mostly illiterate slaves that God wanted them to be subservient. And as viscerally compelling as Ejiofor is in the role, it's often a one note characterization, formed out of (understandably) pained expressions with occasional sidebars of despair or (surprisingly occasionally) rage. The film also perhaps goes to the "it would be better to die than to live like this" well, a point which is made perfectly well early on in the film, but which is revisited later in the plotline built around Patsey.
But these are minor qualms in what is certainly one of the most shockingly brutal depictions of the horrid practice of slavery ever committed to film. Pundits may in fact try to convince blacks that they need to "get over" this supposedly long ago horror, but few people of any race who watch 12 Years a Slave will be able to get over the impact of the film in any brief expanse of time, and perhaps not ever.
12 Years a Slave Blu-ray, Video Quality
12 Years a Slave is presented on Blu-ray courtesy of 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment with an AVC encoded 1080p transfer in 2.40:1. The film is almost unbearably beautiful at times, with McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt lavishing quite a bit of time on the incredible beauty of surroundings encapsulating some of the most abhorrent activities in the history of Mankind. McQueen repeatedly frames scenes with sunlight peeking through foliage (see screenshots 13, 17 and 19), which offer some beautiful dappling effects. A lot of the film is bathed in a kind of syrupy golden hue, which perfectly approximates the indolent life of the slave owners while forming a no doubt intentionally ironic subtext for the scenes of hard slave labor. Fine detail is often exceptional—disturbingly so, at times. The welts and scars on various slaves' bodies are almost palpable, and things like the fine muslin fabric that many slaves wear show every ragged thread. While contrast is generally very strong throughout this presentation, some extremely low light scenes lack adequate shadow detail, to the point that it's very hard to make out exactly what's going on. These few moments are the exception, however, in what is otherwise a sterling high definition experience.
12 Years a Slave Blu-ray, Audio Quality
12 Years a Slave's lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is beautifully rendered and provides a wealth of involving surround activity. Scenes of Solomon's life before slavery include the trudge of horses and slosh of mud lined streets, but it's probably the first appalling clang of chains when Solomon finds himself captive that will make most audiophiles sit up and take notice. The film has several outstanding, if subtle, sequences, including Solomon's trip on the boat to New Orleans, where creaks and groans populate the side and rear channels, or, later, some of the field work, where the slaves' spirituals spill through the surrounds. Special kudos should be given to Hans Zimmer's beautiful string infused score, which also fills the surrounds quite nicely. Dialogue is always cleanly presented and well prioritized. Fidelity is superb throughout the track.
12 Years a Slave Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
12 Years a Slave Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
If you're like me, you'll spend most of 12 Years a Slave with an epic sized pit in your stomach. This is certainly one of the most distressing emotional experiences in recent memory, highlighted by an ironically beautiful production design and some viscerally compelling performances. 12 Years a Slave has been on an awards juggernaut of late, and it will be interesting to see how it fares this weekend at the Academy Awards. In an awards season as competitive as this one has been, it's certainly no sure bet that the film will walk away with anything, but there's absolutely no doubt this is one of the most important films of this or any year. The Blu-ray offers superb technical merits and some excellent supplements. Highly recommended.
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12 Years a Slave Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Fox Searchlight Pictures 20th Anniversary Releases - March 13, 2014
Following 12 Years A Slave's historical Academy Award win for Best Picture, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment announced today a campaign to celebrate Fox Searchlight's 20th Anniversary. The "We Have Your Story" anniversary event ...
• This Week on Blu-ray: March 4-11 - March 2, 2014
For the week of March 4th, Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment is bringing the Academy-Award winning 12 Years a Slave to Blu-ray. Other Tuesday titles include Anchor Bay's Grandmaster disc, Sony and Spike Lee's Oldboy remake, and Fox's release of the cult ...
• 12 Years a Slave Blu-ray Officially Announced - February 4, 2014
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has officially announced that it will release on Blu-ray acclaimed director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave (2013), starring Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, and Benedict Cumberbatch. ...
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