Nightmare of slavery depicted in fierce, mesmerizing ’12 Years A Slave’
If your idea of slavery in the American South is Mammy in Gone With the Wind fiercely protecting her white “fambly” from the evil Yankees, it’s time for a reality check. The blistering 12 Years A Slave, directed by London-born filmmaker Steve McQueen, offers up a fearless, unexpurgated portrait of what slavery was really like in the only way that could make sense to modern viewers—by plunging a free man into the depths and degradation of the institution from which he is made to realize time and again there is no possible escape.
The film is based on a horrifying true story. Solomon Northrup was a free black New Yorker abducted and sold south into slavery in 1841; he was unable to claim his freedom again until 1853, when he wrote the memoir which inspired McQueen’s film. His was a harrowing journey, which McQueen and scriptwriter John Ridley depict in all its brutality. Those expecting an action-packed escape adventure, or an inspirational Hollywood movie about the triumph of the human spirit had best look elsewhere. A bit overlong, and often difficult to watch, 12 Years A Slave is as excruciating as it needs to be in excruciating circumstances, presenting a monstrous chapter of American history in a way you will never forget.
The wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor (Dirty Pretty Things; Kinky Boots) gets a starring role worthy of his considerable talents as Solomon Northrup. A devoted husband and father to two small children, he lives with his family in Saratoga, New York, and earns a handsome living playing violin at swanky society dances. Affable, accomplished, and not terribly worldly, he moves in an upscale social circle of genteel whites and free people of color. So he thinks nothing of it when a pair of traveling performers introduced by a mutual acquaintance offer him a fiddle-playing gig down in Washington City for a couple of days.
The next thing Solomon knows, he wakes up in chains in a bleak cell, taunted and beaten by white guards when he tries to explain who he is. (McQueen pans up from the horrors of Solomon’s basement cell past several storeys of a fortress-like brick building, to reveal its position in the very shadow of the White House.) Soon, Solomon and a handful of other similarly abducted free blacks are loaded onto a paddle steamer and shipped downriver to a slave auction house in the Deep South.
During his odyssey, Solomon is bought by two very different plantation owners. Well-meaning Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) tries to treat his slaves like human beings, even gifts Solomon with a fiddle when he learns he can play, yet turns a blind eye to the vicious cruelties carried out in his name by his assistant overseer (Paul Dano, at his oiliest). Epps (a bravura, willies-inducing performance by Michael Fassbender) is a belligerent psycho whose tyranny is fueled by drink, unspecified rage, his irresistible craving for the slave woman, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)—for which he makes her pay over and over again—and the demands of his equally cuckoo wife (Sarah Paulson).
In the daily course of slave life, women are raped, mothers and children are torn apart, and slaves are forced to do nothing when their fellows are hauled away, or whipped, or lynched, because the reprisals against the whole community would be so much worse. As property without rights, there is no way for these men and women to behave with dignity, or maintain any kind of inner moral compass. McQueen shows with heartbreaking precision how this loss of common humanity, even more than the chains and punishment, is the true cost of slavery.
Ejiofor is nuanced and electrifying; robbed of his name and past, as well as his liberty, his Solomon maintains a desperate grip on his identity during his long season in Hell. He and the viewer are finally rewarded with a late-inning appearance by Brad Pitt as a Canadian-born hired hand who dares to speak truth to the big lie of slavery and make a moral choice on Solomon’s behalf.
Perhaps it requires a perspective from overseas to depict American slavery with such cold clarity. (Although a similar story could be set in any of the British, French, Spanish, or other colonized Caribbean sugar islands as well.) 12 Years A Slave is a film of rare courage that both educates and mesmerizes.
12 YEARS A SLAVE ★★★1/2 (out of four) With Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, and Brad Pitt. Written by John Ridley. From the book by Solomon Northrup. Directed by Steve McQueen. A Fox Searchlight release. Rated R. 134 minutes.