Marred only by the obnoxious casting and performance of Brad Pitt as the hero’s savior—the sequence should have been better written and thought out than it is, and Pitt ought to do something, anything, other than grin like an idiot—the 2013 Best Picture Oscar winner, 12 Years a Slave, available from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, is a superbly constructed historical film, exploring details of the antebellum South that are fresh and largely free of cliché, gathered within a strong emotional narration about a man separated from his family, a heartstring plot that justifies its time spent on getting the details of the past correctly. Directed by Steve McQueen, who was also one of the film’s producers to receive a statuette, the film is a masterful blend of incident, texture, suspense and revelation. Utilizing the classic ‘journey’ story to explore the anguish of the hundreds of thousands of African-Americans (millions of Africans were abducted from Africa, but most were sent to Central and South America), who escaped enslavement only by death, through the eyes of one individual, who was just unfortunate to have that horrific fate befall him for a modest period of his adult life (by and large, it is a true story, based upon an autobiography), the film deftly utilizes the exception to portrait the rule. One of the two great scars that will forever blemish the American ideal—the second, of course, is the Native-American pogrom—slavery is such an overpowering subject for a drama that it requires an exceptional aesthetic approach, lest the narrative momentum become sodden in emotional reflex to the point of inertia. How can the beatings rise to a crescendo without deafening a viewer’s sensitivities on the very first note? How can the random displacement of humans being distributed as property sustain a consistent intrigue of character? How can modern actors embody any of the characters, black or white, truthfully, without going insane? McQueen oversees all of these challenges, creating a powerful, beautiful work—no more or less violent than many great films that have addressed violence—that is entertaining and exciting throughout its 134 minutes. 12 Years a Slave bears witness to a damned institution that was in place far longer than it has been out of place, and one that created social disparities which linger still. It is not a final word on the topic of slavery, but it is a good word, and will enlighten all who pause to share in it.
The picture is presented in letterboxed format only, with an aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 and an accommodation for enhanced 16:9 playback. The image is smooth and sharp, and the cinematography is exquisite. The 5.1-channel Dolby Digital sound is also thrilling. The cicadas, in particular, are magnificent. There is an audio track that describes the action (“Solomon grimaces in pain, his mouth agape. A barred window with an open wood shutter gives a view inside the darkened cell. Behind the bars, Solomon brings his anguished face to the window. Our view rises up the brick building’s outer wall. Upon reaching the top, a view over the building’s roof gives us a glimpse of the Capitol Building in the distance.”), alternate French and Spanish tracks in standard stereo, optional English and Spanish subtitles, and 13 minutes of passable production featurettes about the crew supporting McQueen’s vision. Chiwetel Ejiofor stars, with Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender, and others.