Director Steve McQueen’s drama, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a harrowing, unforgettable look at the reality of slavery
Sometimes you have to prepare yourself for the journey a film takes you on. So it is with “12 Years a Slave,” a harrowing, unforgettable drama that doesn’t look away from the reality of slavery and, in so doing, helps us all fully, truly confront it.
Seen first in director Steve McQueen’s film are the empty eyes of a group of slaves preparing to work a field. They then sleep crushed together in a small room. Among them is Solomon Northup (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), who had another life.
In 1841, Northup was a free man earning a good living as a musician in Saratoga, N.Y. When his wife and two young children leave for a trip, Solomon is approached by two strangers claiming to be businessmen seeking a violinist to perform in Washington, D.C. He drinks and dines with them, then awakens in chains, captured by slave traders. He is beaten, and though plotting an escape, is shipped South to be sold.
Renamed “Platt,” Northup is bought at a grotesque, ornate auction by a conscientious land owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But a run-in with Ford’s cruel overseer (Paul Dano) necessitates Northup’s being sold to work the plantation of the unhinged Epps (Michael Fassbender). As Northup learns to survive — his identity, his humanity, stripped away — he hopes to get word to his family in the North.
McQueen allows everyday violence and degradation to seep into the film slowly. By the time Northup is nearly hanged by standing all day, unacknowledged, with a noose around his neck as the ground sinks beneath him — with slaves and foremen blankly passing by — the commonplace barbarity is sickeningly apparent.
Exemplars of the monstrousness are the drunken Epps and his cruel wife (Sarah Paulson). Epps is obsessed with his young slave Patsey (heartbreaking newcomer Lupita Nyong’o), telling his jealous wife he’d divorce her before he’d sell Patsey. Then Epps sits unflinching as Patsey is beaten during late-night dances in which the exhausted slaves’ forced decorum is a macabre echo of the affairs Northup once performed at.
John Ridley’s deft, well-structured screenplay balances moments of terror with telling glances of Northup’s sad resignation. Hans Zimmer’s music underscores gently or, at times, jarringly, a symphonic suggestion of being caught in a machine. Through it all, Ejiofor (“Children of Men”), Nyong’o and Fassbender (star of McQueen’s 2011 “Shame”) are astonishing. Paulson, Dano and Paul Giamatti make gruesome villains, while Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, playing a Canadian laborer, offer glimmers of light.
The film hints that Northup — whose 1853 memoir the film is based on — had an apparent disregard of the reality of slavery before his abduction. Yet his journey into its horrors becomes our own. In showing them, McQueen has made a film comparable to “Schindler’s List” — art that may be hard to watch, but which is an essential look at man’s inhumanity to man.
It is wrenching, but “12 Years a Slave” earns its tears in a way few films ever do.