There’s no doubt in my mind that 12 Years a Slave will go down in history as a landmark film. Never before, and quite possibly never again, has the issue of African American slavery and the still present pain and anguish been this viscerally and brilliantly realized. Its effect is provocative, much like gazing into an unattended open wound that never quite heals itself, but rather reaches a point of stasis beyond which things couldn’t possibly get any worse no matter how awful a situation may be. It’s a film of such immense power that it actually places the viewer into the shoes of someone for whom the very prospect of hope is so non-existent that the very word would drive him mad on the grounds of false pretence. To date, it will stand as director Steve McQueen’s masterpiece, and rightfully so. It’s an assured work made with steady hands, artistic talent, deep thought, and a clear authorial intent that no other film about the subject has ever come close to approximating.
Based on a true narrative from antebellum America, the story of Solomon Northup, played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor, isn’t the type of slave narrative that immediately springs to mind. It’s a story that was a bestselling book in its time; possibly only bested by Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the writings of Frederick Douglass in terms of notoriety on the subject. Northup’s story was certainly out of the ordinary, but not unheard of.
The film opens with Northup, a free living violinist in the North with a wife and children, being duped, drunked, and drugged by a pair of what he believes to be potential business associates. When he awakens, he’s in a cell bound for the South, stripped of his identity with his new captors insisting he’s a runaway from a plantation and not who he actually is. He’s quickly sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a British man who has a bit more of a heart than most slave masters, but he still owns slaves. He’s forced to leave this Ford’s relative comfort after a disastrous row with an abusive overseer (Paul Dano) turns almost murderous. Fearing for Solomon’s life the man is forced to sell his “property” to the loutish cotton plantation runner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a latently self-loathing man who wears his reputation as a “nigger breaker” proudly. Solomon is worked around the clock, beaten, and broken to a point of complete hopelessness. His only potential salvation comes in the form of a kindly Canadian carpenter (Brad Pitt), who still fears for his own life if he were to help Solomon in any way escape from his predicament.
Aside from an exceptionally structured screenplay from John Ridley that captures a sort of period realism in its dialogue that’s never really been broached before (kind of its own dialect really, a blend of the formal and informal that speaks to the country as a whole going through a deep transitional phase from that of colonies to a young established nation), 12 Years a Slave benefits the most from McQueen’s brutal and unflinching sense of realism and an ability to provoke thought and reflection through unwavering conviction.
There are two primary moments in the film that will shock to be certain. One involves the cruel and utterly depraved torture of a character shown through a lingering shot that’s all the more graphic because people walk by in complacency of the action, afraid to speak up and keeping about their own business. The other more graphically involves the whipping of a slave. Both moments last probably less than a minute of screen time in combined length. They feel like eternities. They are filmed by McQueen so brilliantly from a script that knows how to perfectly escalate any given situation that the human brain almost can’t fathom what it’s seeing. They are moments forever burned into a cinematic eternity, but they also provide proper context for the characters and the actors to create full portrayals of these people and do their counterparts justice.
The film rises even higher with Ejiofor’s commanding and soulful presence. It’s Solomon’s story and the character is never off screen. It’s told entirely from his perspective, and the subtle breakdown of a man has rarely been this heartbreaking. In an interesting spin on forced humility and growing malaise, Ejiofor makes sure that Solomon’s own steadfast and strong nature rarely breaks, but instead transforms into a different kind of strength. He’s cognizant that he’s being broken down, and being a learned man Solomon tries to fight off the impulse to simply give up. At first, he’s rebellious, certain that he will find a way to convince Ford to let him go, and even after leaving for Epps’ plantation, he maintains the same feeling, knowing he’s unquestionably smarter than the man trying to break him.
Without coming out and saying it, this part of the film is where Ridley’s screenplay, Ejiofor’s performance, and McQueen’s vision align quite nicely and subtly. While there is early talk of the law of the land not working in Solomon’s favour, the shift in action to focusing on the terrifying Epps is nothing compared to the unspoken cloud of law that all of the characters find themselves beneath. Ejoifor as Solomon isn’t broken so much by the specific, as he is the system. The specifics after a while numb him. He never changes, but in a bold move Ejoifor makes Solomon even harder; a man who would scoff at the very notion that hope could ever exist outside the plantation boundaries. It’s a career defining performance from a consistently great actor no matter how one looks at it.
The supporting cast of numerous familiar faces in sometimes small, but pivotal roles (including the aforementioned Pitt, Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti as a heartless slave auctioneer, and Michael Kenneth Williams as a fellow slave, and Alfre Woodard as a black woman married to a white neighbour), gets quite noteworthy work from Fassbender, actress Lupita Nyong’o, and Dano, who as of late has been the go-to young actor for hellbent psychopaths.
Nyong’o has the added weight on her shoulders of showcasing almost a different kind of slavery narrative that even fewer people wish to talk about. As Epps’ most prized “possession” and hardest worker, the master begins to have sexual relations with her, much to the man’s knowing and almost equally hateful wife (Sarah Paulson). Her character gets an even more torturous hand dealt to her than Solomon, and it’s played out in a fashion where Solomon has no way to help her and is forced, like the audience, to watch her suffer largely in silence and indignity. It’s a heartbreaking turn, and quite possibly the best in the film.
Fassbender, already firmly on McQueen’s aesthetic and narrative wavelength following their collaborations on Shame and Hunger, delivers his darkest performance to date. Epps clearly to some degree can’t stand himself and long ago resigned himself to a lifetime of backbreaking labour, hateful feelings, and an unhappy marriage. In many ways, he’s a slave to his own complacency; a man lashing out because he never once followed one of his own ideas. In his unspoken backstory there feels like an insidious family history traced from a straight line that never deviates. He’s a man of simmering, violent rage that could only come from a sadness so deep (notice, I do not say it’s a sympathetic sadness) that it manifests itself in self-loathing so deep it can only be taken out on those around him. It’s almost impossible to encapsulate a full portrait of the worst kind of human being, but McQueen and Fassbender do it once again wonderfully in a teaming that almost matches the actor’s bravura and transformative work in Hunger.
The feeling once the credits of 12 Years a Slave hit is one of exhaustion and the kind of muscular shock that one might only experience after having gone through something physically excruciating. During one sequence before the end of the film a man in front of me looked like he was visibly about to have a panic attack, or at the very least was feeling something incredibly profound. That’s meant as the highest form of compliment given the story at hand. There’s absolutely no way that any film, past or present, will ever be able to truly depict beat for beat the injustice of slavery. McQueen’s film is the closest I fear anyone will ever get.