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Into the Inferno
A review of 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave (Regency Enterprises)


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Twelve Years a Slave, the first non-Tarantino major motion picture in years to offer a slave’s-eye view of the antebellum South, would probably have been guaranteed admiring reviews and a Best Picture nomination even if it had turned out to be ponderous, turgid, and pedantic. Fortunately, it’s artful enough, moving enough, and sometimes ravaging enough to mostly justify the critical reception. Some of the reviews are promising too much: This is not a work of unmatched cinematic greatness, and its unflinching portrait of the mechanics of slavery sometimes gives the human side of things short shrift. But given the historical burden 12 Years carries, it’s still a film that acquits itself impressively and deserves to be admired.

The story is a true (or mostly true) one, based on a narrative written by Solomon Northup, a free black man and accomplished violinist from Saratoga who was kidnapped while on a visit to Washington, D.C., drugged, and shipped southward into bondage. With no one to trust, no one with any incentive to believe his story, and no legal or practical means of communicating with the North, the movie’s Northup passes from the comforts of middle-class respectability into the concentric circles of peculiar-institution hell: first the vicious efficiency of a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), then the hapless rule of a half-decent, would-be-Christian plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then finally the infernal grip of the story’s Simon Legree figure, the ruthless alcoholic Edwin Epps.


Contents
November 25, 2013    |     Volume LXV, No. 22

Articles
  • Our drift toward an imperial presidency.
  • Can he make it on the national level?
  • The scandal of Americans’ Third World net worth.
  • Thoughts on the use and abuse of ‘establishment.’
  • A report from Professor Hobsbawm’s memorial service.
Features
Books, Arts & Manners
  • James Rosen reviews The Kennedy Half-Century: The Presidency, Assassination, and Lasting Legacy of John F. Kennedy, by Larry J. Sabato, End of Days: The Assassination of John F. Kennedy, by James L. Swanson, and The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union, by Peter Savodnik.
  • James Piereson reviews JFK, Conservative, by Ira Stoll.
  • Ramesh Ponnuru reviews Abuse of Discretion: The Inside Story of Roe v. Wade, by Clarke D. Forsythe.
  • Thomas S. Hibbs reviews Duke: A Life of Duke Ellington, by Terry Teachout.
  • Ross Douthat reviews 12 Years a Slave.
Sections
The Long View  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Athwart  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Poetry  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  
Happy Warrior  .  .  .  .  .  .  .  .