I find it so strange and troubling that the talk surrounding director Steve McQueen's (SHAME, HUNGER) latest work, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, has been reduced to a discussion about whether people can handle the extreme violence. Let me help you decide. Of course you can't handle the violence; you aren't supposed to be able to handle the violence. You're supposed to be given some sense of the sheer brutality of the practice of slavery. Slavery isn't about working for no pay; it's about taking a human mind and body and convincing it that it is something less than human by means of physical violence, such as the eye-searing whipping that goes on in this film, or by sexual domination. More than likely, it's a combination of the two.
For those born into slavery, they likely never knew any other condition for the duration of their lives. But for Solomon Northup (played to perfection by Chiwetel Ejiofor of CHILDREN OF MEN and DIRTY PRETT THINGS), a free man living in pre-Civil War upstate New York, the pain of being kidnapped and sold into slavery must have been all the worse. 12 YEARS A SLAVE tracks Northup from owner to owner, being treated like almost an equal by some because of his extraordinary skills and mind, while others brutalized and degraded him like something less than an animal. Since John Ridley's screenplay is based on a memoir by Northup, you can probably guess how it ends, but that in no way takes away from the power of this true story.
The film is loaded with talented famous faces in even the smallest roles. If you blink, you'll miss BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD stars Quvenzhané Wallis and Dwight Henry in brief supporting parts. But it's unlikely you'll miss the likes of Paul Giamatti as the man who sells Northup into slavery initially, Benedict Cumberbatch as his kindly first owner, Paul Dano as a plantation manager who gives Norhtup his first true taste of cruelty, Michael K. Williams as a fellow slave, Alfre Woodard as a rare slave who actually runs the house she lives in thanks to the master of the house falling in love with her, or Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist who takes the first step in setting Northup free.
Outside of Ejiofor, the most memorable performances belong to McQueen's frequent creative partner Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, the cruel plantation owner whose twisted brand of religion (along with his wife, played by Sarah Paulson) he uses to justify some atrocious behavior, most of which is aimed at Lupita Nyong'o as the slave Patsey, whom Epps lusts after without mercy. If he wasn't so damn great as the psychotic Epps, I'd say Fassbender runs the risk of stealing this movie away from even Ejiofor. It wouldn't be hard to make a case for it, but I choose to see it as two equally strong performances existing side by side.
McQueen spares us nothing. The language will make you flinch, the attitudes about the worth of a slave's life are beyond troubling, and the severity of the violence can get damn near unbearable at times. But the cumulative impact is undeniable. McQueen is going for authenticity, not shock value. It just so happens that the reality is terribly shocking. But at the center of it all is the noble Ejiofor, who isn't tasked with playing a slave; he must play a free man pretending to be a slave, pretending to be uneducated, pretending to be illiterate. This is a man who has spent much of his adult life being able to walk down the street and have people say hello to him or shake his hand. Nothing in his life has prepared him to take on this existence, but he holds on because he firmly believes that sanity will take hold in the world long enough for him to get free.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is an extraordinary film that may simply be too much for some to handle. Yes there is violence, but I was more overtaken by the overwhelming sense of despair and the grim, unbelievable reality of the situation. As serious moviegoers (which I'm assuming you are if you've read this far), you owe it to yourselves to see the best of what's out there; this is it, folks.