During the fall awards season, many movies arrive so shrouded in hype and hyperbole that it’s often difficult to see these works clearly on their own merits, unencumbered by the studio and publicist-driven hoopla that surrounds them. However, Steve McQueen’s third and latest feature, 12 Years a Slave, which recently screened at the New York Film Festival, is one film that richly deserves the tremendous acclaim that has been bestowed on it well before its domestic release.
It’s based on the true story of, and the memoir written by, Solomon Northrup, a free black man living in slavery-era America. In 1841, he was abducted and sold into slavery, ending up on a brutal plantation in Louisiana. As the title of his memoir and this film indicates, Northrup spent 12 years in harrowing circumstances before he was finally rescued in 1853; his memoirs were published a few months after his liberation. Despite the extraordinary contours of this tale, and its unusual slant on the popular genre of the slave narrative, Northrup’s story, up until now, was one of the more obscure and nearly forgotten ones.
McQueen has excavated this narrative with the prodigious artistry that marked his previous two features, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011). But while the visual brilliance of those films often came at the expense of full emotional identification with their protagonists (both brilliantly portrayed by Michael Fassbender), 12 Years a Slave finds McQueen fully marrying an emotionally wrenching story—with many performances to match—with his eye for composing arresting and indelibly memorable images. McQueen’s coolly analytical style, combined with the compelling and heartrending account—and an excellent script by John Ridley–creates a bracing aesthetic tension that prevents the film from devolving into sentimental and overly melodramatic mush.
The film begins with Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) well into his enslavement, attempting to write a letter with juice from a berry before he gives up in frustrated despair. We then flash back to his previously stable, relatively privileged life with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, NY, where he makes his living as a violinist. Lured to Washington DC with the promise of greater income by two proprietors of a traveling circus, Solomon is instead drugged and kidnapped. After he comes to, he’s in chains on his way down south, forced to assume the identity of “Platt,” a supposed fugitive slave from Georgia. His insistence that he is a free man and his attempts to get word to people in the North earns him nothing but brutal beatings.
After Solomon is taken to Louisiana, he is initially sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner who seems to be one of the more kindly ones. He takes a liking to Solomon, and even gifts him a new violin after recognizing his talent. But even Ford’s relative enlightenment, compared to others of his ilk, doesn’t present him from countenancing the inhumane separation of one of his female slaves from her son. Solomon is also placed under the watch of Tibeats (Paul Dano), a brutal overseer who immediately despises what he perceives as Solomon’s uppity attitude. The conflict between them leads to Tibeats nearly lynching Solomon before Ford saves him.
Looming financial debts force Ford to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), another plantation owner who, in contrast to Ford, is unyielding in his harsh treatment toward his slaves. Through this character, we witness the inhuman brutality of slavery as well as the twisted psychology of those who perpetrated this cruelty on others. Solomon and the other slaves are subjected to long, back-breaking hours in the cotton fields and harsh beatings if they fail to meet the day’s quota. Solomon also witnesses the tortures visited upon Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave woman especially prized by Epps, who regularly rapes her and exhibits jealously obsessive feelings toward her. Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulson) deeply resents her husband’s ministrations toward Patsey, and punishes her at every opportunity.
12 Years a Slave is in many ways a horror film, and a sort of true-life Grimm’s fairy tale; Hans Zimmer’s moody, insistent score reinforces this mood. It also forms an interesting contrast with Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, another film dealing with slavery. Although Tarantino certainly didn’t shy away from brutality, it was presented in the context of a rousing, spaghetti western-inflected revenge fantasy. McQueen refuses us these genre thrills in favor of something more profound, and much more emotionally involving. He fully immerses the viewer in the sights and sounds of what slavery must have felt like.
Slavery’s horrors unfold in front of our eyes along with Solomon’s to the extreme cruelties visited upon his fellow black Americans. McQueen and Ridley leave us with indelibly memorable sounds and images: the deafening sounds of Solomon being whipped with a wooden paddle during his first night in captivity; the open wounds on Patsy’s back as others try to heal her; Solomon hanging from a rope in a plantation yard as others calmly go about their business around him, barely noticing him.
12 Years a Slave, almost needlessly to say, boasts brilliant and committed performances. Fassbender vividly portrays Epps’s villainy without becoming cartoonishly over-the-top, while Nyong’o delivers a beautifully heartbreaking performance. However, Chiwetel Ejiofor will deservedly receive the lions’ share of attention for his tour de force portrayal as Solomon, who is never less than quietly commanding and mesmerizing. He gives us the full dimensions of his journey from freedom to slavery and back to freedom. His haunted eyes, and the pain that is evident within them, speak far more than even the best-written dialog ever could (and Ridley provides much of that here).
And let’s not forget the hauntingly lovely cinematography of McQueen’s regular collaborator Sean Bobbitt, which glimmers even while showing us the cruelest behavior. All of these elements make 12 Years a Slave a model of superior filmmaking, combining a compelling classical narrative with cutting-edge visual art.