12 Years A Slave debuts in New Orleans Civic Theatre

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 The largest crowd in the 24-year history of the New Orleans Film Festival helped kick off eight days of high-quality new movies, starting at the Civic performance space in the CBD. The mood on the genuinely star-studded red carpet outside of the venue was ebullient — in direct emotional contrast to the gruesome and darkly beautiful movie they’d all gathered to see and promote, 12 Years A Slave. The only people who could have possibly been traditionally happy at the end of the film were the cast, and director Steve McQueen, whose movie has already flattened the Telluride Festival, and won the People’s Choice Award in Toronto. Many will soon be calling Mc­Queen a genius, with the most powerful movie of 2013, and perhaps the most pitch perfect slavery movie of all time.

Though 12 Years A Slave will probably end up filed under ‘historical biopic,’ it is as much a horror movie. We are not told the way in which talented and educated free man of color Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) earned his initial freedom, only that he’s living in 1830s New York with his wife and children. He travels to Wash­ing­ton to take a three-week job, playing violin with a traveling show — but then wakes one morning in chains. He is told he is not who he is, that he’s now a runaway slave, being shipped via paddleboat to Louisiana. The ominous boat’s loud, steady creak permeates even later scenes at cotton and sugarcane plantations on hot Southern land.

The many destined to write about this important film will be, at least this year, unable to resist comparing and contrasting 12 Years A Slave with Quentin Tarantino’s recent spaghetti western slave revenge fantasy, Django Unchained. The two movies share several precise details and a couple of scenes almost note-for note — some moments feel like McQueen speaking directly to Tarantino: This is how it should be done. Where Django was more an anti-authoritarian bit of cathartic “fun” at best, McQueen’s movie bleeds a heavy sadness that Tarantino never dared touch. 12 Years validates most of the criticisms against Django. It is the movie Spike Lee wanted when he flat-out refused Tarantino’s version of the story.

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