I grew up in Louisiana. The best thing I've ever had to say about that is that I was not born there. Fortunately, though, in having to grow up in Louisiana, I did at least grow up in the best part of the state. Well, the least Louisiana-ish part of the state. And I went to the best high school in the state (which is still the best high school in the state the last time I checked). At the time I went there, at a time when Louisiana was ranked around 47 in education, my high school was one of the top ranked high schools in the nation. That's an aberration that no longer exists.
All of that to say that my educational experience was in no way typical of the area in which I lived and, actually, not typical to most of the nation as a whole. At least not at that time.
And all of that to say that the evils of slavery were strongly impressed upon us, and I picked up a firm belief that all men should be treated equally. At the time, I thought these things were normal for all people; it wasn't until later (only a couple or few years, actually) that I realized that a belief in equality is not a universal belief. In fact, it's a minority belief.
With all of that in mind, it was somewhat difficult to sit through 12 Years a Slave, which is set in Louisiana.
Let me state explicitly at this point that I grew up in what was probably the least racist part of Louisiana and Louisiana is probably not the most racist state in the south, although Louisiana did do a good job of trying to elect a KKK dude as governor in the early 90s. That still horrifies me, especially so considering that David Duke got the majority of the white vote, something he claimed as a victory.
12 Years a Slave is possibly the most brutal movie about slavery I've ever seen. It's unflinching in its portrayal of the inhumanity involved in selling slaves and the attitude of them being nothing more than just, basically, livestock. This is summed up no better than a line delivered by Mistress Ford to a female slave just separated from her children, "You'll forget about your children soon enough," as if she was a dog being separated from her pups. Of course, Eliza did not forget about her children.
However, as brutal as the film is, it is very much detached from the emotion of the things that are happening in most circumstances. You see the horror, but you don't really feel it. In that, it's almost like watching a documentary. It's more clinical than visceral, a drawback for a movie like this, and I'm not sure what causes the disconnect. It's not a lack in the quality of the acting.
Chiwetel Ejiofor does a great job of bewilderment after he's kidnapped at the beginning of the movie. He make us believe in the unreality of his situation. At least, it's unreal from his perspective. Solomon Northup was, after all, born a free man and the idea that he's been taken into slavery is a bit beyond his conception. The problem, I think, with the movie overall is that Ejiofor never really seems to believe in the situation he's in. It's as if every moment he's waiting to wake up, and that may have been what made me feel removed from the action of the movie. I'm not sure that's all of it, but I know that's some of it.
Michael Fassbender, on the other hand, is completely "within" his character, Edwin Epps. Fassbender is not someone I've thought much of as an actor thus far. Not that I've thought he was bad, he's just been someone I've mostly shrugged off as, "eh, what's the big deal?" But he did a great job as Epps. He was completely believable as cruel and erratic. And Sarah Paulson, who played his wife, was wonderful(ly horrible) as his cold, bitter wife.
Many of the other actors were also quite good in their smaller roles. Giamatti, Cumberbatch, and Pitt were more than adequate, but their roles didn't require anything more of them than to be the kind of characters they frequently are. Pitt, in particular, seems to have chosen hos role specifically (he did produce it) to deliver the message he wanted to deliver, and he fit well in that part. Paul Dano was also quite good. Actually, Dano is good enough that I always have a hard time remembering who he is when I see him on screen. He seems to gravitate toward parts that are kind of slimy, but he fits so well into them, that he mostly disappears.
The most unsatisfactory part of the movie, though (and this is kind of spoilery, but, if you have any grasp of racial history in the United States, it shouldn't be anything unexpected or surprising), is the bad guys go unpunished. Of course, this is because the bad guys went unpunished, so it's more that it's an unsatisfactory part of history; no fault of the movie. It does, however, stir up feelings over the injustice of how Northup was treated. That's actually a positive aspect of the movie, because you should feel that Northup was treated unjustly. He was treated unjustly.
It was a good movie but not one that I felt was great. There's almost no way it won't get a best picture nomination, but I don't think it's going to win. I don't think it ought to win. From a movie standpoint, it was just missing... something. Something ineffable, I guess. That doesn't make it a movie you shouldn't see, though. Evidently, the message that all men should be treated equally is still a message that needs to be delivered.