On the heels of Lee Daniels’ The Butler comes 12 Years a Slave, another true-life tale that turns the lens on the African-American experience. Steve McQueen’s exquisitely filmed, harrowing chronicle recounts the dozen years that Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) spent as chattel in the Deep South with an unflinching eye that forces viewers to confront the horrors of slavery.
An educated, free family man from upstate New York, Northup is tricked into traveling south to Washington, D.C., with promises of a violin-playing gig in a traveling circus. There, he’s drugged, robbed, renamed Platt and sold into slavery. Without papers proving his status, any protestations only make things worse for him. Northup is advised especially to hide the fact that he can read and write.
Early on, Northup is beaten with a paddle until it breaks—the camera on the floor, focused on his face and holding there until you’re wincing with every stroke. The whole film beats to this rhythm of the slave industry, from the churn of the paddle steamer that transports Northup to the South, to the cutting and trimming of a cane crop, to Hans Zimmer’s percussive avant-garde score.
Northup’s first master is the kindly Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a preacher bothered by separating a hysterical mother named Eliza (Pariah’s Adepero Oduye) from her children but not enough to do anything about it. There Northup encounters the bully overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and in an example of how McQueen doesn’t ever let up, sustaining a discomfiting tone during even milder moments, he juxtaposes Ford’s bucolic Bible study for his slaves with Tibeats’ belting a work song with an epithet in the title.
Ejiofor brings imposing physicality and intimidating intellect to the role, and thus Northup poses a threat to his enemies—even if they can’t articulate it as such. Confronted by a slave who won’t blindly follow orders, Tibeats strings him up, and Northup hangs in a noose from a tree, toes slipping in mud, the sound of his choking mingling with the soft chatter of insects while life, including children playing, goes on around him.
It is awful to watch, and again McQueen doesn’t cut away, the minutes standing in for the hours Northup actually hangs there. But it’s also an example of how McQueen, along with his D.P. Sean Bobbitt and production designer Adam Stockhausen, composes even the most horrifying moments with a painterly eye, luxuriating in the lush southern landscape, each frame a work of art.
After this incident, Ford sells Northup to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a vile cotton farmer known for breaking his slaves. Fassbender, who’s also starred in McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, subtly reveals the self-loathing at work in his otherwise blustery character. He lusts after Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the best cotton picker on his plantation—she can load 500 pounds a day to Northup’s 200—but is simultaneously repulsed by his attraction, all under the hateful eye of his harpy wife (Sarah Paulson). So Patsey gets it from all sides. Her vicious beating, filmed in one long, unmerciful shot, is a devastating performance from an interesting actress (Mexican-born, Kenyan-raised, Yale-educated) in her debut role.
As nuanced as Cumberbatch and Fassbender are in their performances, though, their respective archetypes as kindly and cruel are clear-cut, and when producer Brad Pitt shows up on the scene as a Canadian abolitionist, he’s positively angelic, a downright savior—and white. (But then what other honest outcome could there be? This isn’t a Quentin Tarantino revenge fantasy, after all.)
12 Years a Slave is frequently masterful—in its fluid, novelistic chronology; in its transcendent aesthetics; in its insistence on making you not only look, but see, until you’re left breathless. It’s slightly deflating then, that the sum of the parts is less than the whole. After all that’s come before, the ending, for all its well-earned emotion, goes exactly as one would expect, with none of the distress underlying the rest of the film—and thus none of the visceral reaction either.
Director: Steve McQueen
Writer: John Ridley
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
Release date: Oct. 18, 2013