Here’s the thing: Is it possible to dislike this movie? Surely, one can loathe slavery, inhumanity and evil, and not particularly like a film about it. This movie tells an unfathomably horrible true story about the abduction and enslavement of a free black man in mid-19th century America. It’s painful to watch—often because of the subject matter and occasionally because of some awkward film-making and direction that doesn't seem to trust the power of the story itself.
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a talented violinist, a married and successful free man living in New York State in 1848. When he is invited to play for a two-week stint in Washington, D.C., he doesn't hesitate. Almost immediately, he finds himself shackled to the floor of a slave-trader’s pit and his decade of torment begins. His name is changed, and Solomon is sent to work as a slave on a Southern plantation. He is violently beaten, and he is forced to shut down his intelligence and education and resign himself to a new life of hopeless anguish.
The acting is Oscar-worthy, particularly Ejiofor, who shows brilliant restraint in a performance that could have easily swerved toward melodrama. My only complaint is that the direction lacked a subtlety that would have made the story infinitely more powerful. Certainly, there are times when imagination and implication can have a more profound impact on an audience than outright horror. In the end, the film is a horrible, stunning tale of survival. As Brad Pitt’s character quips, the story is amazing and in no good way. It’s is an awful vignette in a gruesome chapter of history. It’s a 7.