Quite possibly the definitive film about slavery in the 19th Century United States, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is not just a bleak history lesson but a literate, engaging, and ultimately devastating film that tells the incredible true story of Solomon Northup and captures all the horrors of slavery along the way.
Northup, an accomplished violinist and a father of three, was a free man living in upstate New York in 1841 who was kidnapped during a trip to Washington DC, transported to New Orleans, and sold into slavery, working on plantations over the next decade-plus. Northup chronicled his journey in the memoir Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853 and adapted by John Ridley for the screen.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup, who, in the opening minutes of the film, is lured to D.C. by a pair of conmen (played by Scoot McNairy & Taran Killam) under the guise of giving a violin performance. He awakens after a night of drinking in a cell, and the horror of what is happening to him slowly starts to reveal itself. For the audience, there’s an unrelenting sense of dread during these early scenes: we know what awaits Solomon, and the 12-year duration of it.
What follows is a stunning depiction of Northup’s life in servitude, strikingly shot and composed by McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who also shot the director’s previous features, along with last year’s Byzantium). Early on, much of the film keeps us at arm’s length using long shots and a theater-like composition, giving us an almost mechanical overview of the situation; later on, close-ups are used to underscore the emotional effect.
12 Years has its share of unforgettable moments, including a slave auction during which Northup plays the violin to drown out the screams of a child being torn from her mother, under the direction of a slave trader played by Paul Giamatti. One stunning sequence involves Solomon finally standing up for himself against a nasty carpenter (Paul Dano), only to be strung up and left standing on his toes for hours until benevolent master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) returns.
And then there’s Solomon’s psychotic second master Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, whose towering performance dominates the second half of the film. Epps is painted not as a monster but as a fully-dimensional product of his era: one of the greatest strengths of this film is forcing us to identify with Epps on both logical (“motivating” his slaves to increase production) and emotional (his treatment of mistress Patsey, dictated by his bullying wife) levels. We understand why this man acts the way he does, even as we are horrified by his actions.
Lupita Nyong’o is unforgettable as Patsey, the object of both Epps lust and derision; in her debut feature film, she’s been nominated for an Academy Award, which she will most likely win (Ejiofor and Fassbender have also been deservedly nominated for Oscars, though Dallas Buyers Club’s Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto are the odds-on favorites for those awards.)
There’s a profound sense of sadness surrounding the Northup character, not because of what happens to him but because of helplessness he feels for his fellow slaves. Northup knows a better life, and still manages to hold out hope of returning to it; but he also knows that while he may be saved, the others – and especially Patsey – will not.
In that way, there’s an intimate connection between Northup and the audience, who also watch helplessly as characters are abused and tortured on screen. We know not only that we cannot help them, but also that they will not be avenged: this is not a movie where the extreme violence perpetrated by the villains will result in any kind of redemption by the end.
Technical aspects of the film are absolutely first-rate, with period detail richly recreated (the film has also earned Oscar noms for Costume and Production design) and a wonderful original score by Hans Zimmer (which was somehow overlooked).
12 Years a Slave has been nominated for nine Oscars, including Best Picture, Director, and Screenplay. It’s a favorite to win best picture – and might be my choice out of the nominated films – though Gravity and American Hustle also appear to be very much in the race. This is also McQueen’s most accessible film to date, following the Bobby Sands prison movie Hunger and the sex addict drama Shame (both of which also starred Fassbender).
Don’t be turned off by the subject matter: a masterful piece of storytelling, 12 Years a Slave is a vividly compelling and beautifully composed film that deserves your attention.