Hard to endure, hard to fathom, but essential.
12 Years a Slave feels like it could very well be the most accurate cinematic depiction of the atrocities of slavery. We don’t just see the physical brutality, we also feel the isolation, the helplessness, and each slave’s necessary abandonment of individuality in order to survive. The geographical solitude in which two different worlds are formed, the one inhabited by the slaves and the one inhabited by the landowners and overseers, is one of the story’s focal points and how it affects the mentality of each character. For all of these reasons, 12 Years a Slave, based on the book of the true story by Solomon Northup, succeeds where no other film about slavery has. In other films of this nature, the “hero” rises up against the odds. The protagonist rises up by gradually becoming an outspoken leader, or by finding the only sympathetic ear that winds up being a ticket to freedom. Those stories may be inspiring, and well told, but they are often sugar-coated, to put it bluntly. When viewing 12 Years a Slave, we, the audience, don’t get special treatment. We are forced into a very dark place in our nation’s history, and we are asked to face the harrowing truth head on.
As the true story goes, Solomon Northup (Chiwetal Ejiofor) is a free black man with a wife and kids in Saratoga, New York. He is offered a short gig playing violin and winds up drugged and kidnapped, then sold into slavery. No one believes his story, and to even suggest that he’s an educated black man is to ask for punishment. As the title (and book) suggests, Solomon is enslaved for twelve treacherous years filled with numerous overseers, harsh living conditions and no shred of hope. The Louisiana landscape is beautifully captured (or emulated quite successfully) through smooth shots of the bayous and horizons, portraying a stark contrast to the tense fear constantly instilled in the slave workers. Solomon meets various plantation characters along the way, widely ranging in their lifestyle and personalities, but not in their unwavering subordination to the slave-based economy. It’s aggravating, and it weighs heavily on the viewer.
Director Steve McQueen, who’s previous directorial credit was 2011’s Shame (also featuring a brilliant performance by Michael Fassbender), treats the story of Solomon Northup with a lot of uneasy patience. It sounds like an oxymoron, yet, in watching 12 Years a Slave, you’ll be witness to extended scenes of brutality and misery that will test your comfort level. But McQueen never shows anything gratuitous. When the violence is shown, it serves a purpose. It either serves as the culmination of a suspenseful and emotional buildup, or signifies a turning point in Solomon’s misfortune, rarely for the better.
The acting is unbelievably powerful. Ejiofor has earned this starring role. A wide-ranging actor who’s been stellar in countless supporting roles, Ejiofor brings both grace and strength to Solomon’s neverending struggles. Fassbender will easily earn an Oscar nomination for his turn as the unspeakably cruel plantation owner, Edwin Epps. At times raving mad and other times intimately controlling, Epps is a lost soul clinging onto his allotment in life and passionate religious faith to hold him afloat. At his side, but standing alone in her cruel persuasion, is his wife Mary Epps, a cold and truly sinister Sarah Paulson. Also on the plantation is a young slave woman, Patsey (a remarkable performance by Lupita Nyong’o), who is a constant victim of Edwin Epps uninhibited affection. Before arriving on the Epps plantation, Solomon encounters a smooth talking slave trader played by Paul Giamatti, a more sympathetic slave owner played with a cool sense of calm by Benedict Cumberbatch, and a nasty younger slave master played with creepy conviction by Paul Dano. The appearance of Brad Pitt, likely a part of his contract as producer, is a bit distracting but his bit part is strong, albeit somewhat preachy.
Despite the “based on a true story” tagline, it would be wrong to spoil anything. However, it should be mentioned that the film doesn’t leave the viewer overwhelmed, so entranced with the feeling of ruin, without a sense of closure. 12 Years a Slave doesn’t force sentimentality, it achieves it.
12 Years a Slave opens in Bay Area theaters today, November 1, 2013.