Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE, based on the famous book by Solomon Northup, isn't a simple portrayal of American slavery. It doesn't get as graphic as a movie like FAREWELL UNCLE TOM, where the filmmakers of that vile film seemed to revel in their horrific imagery (and yet, it can also be said that FAREWELL UNCLE TOM is accurate in its examination of slavery, abhorrent as the film may be), and even the title suggests that the horrors we are watching do eventually come to an end. But because we are tourists in this world, given a guide like Solomon Northup (the outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor), his struggles become our struggles. And we slowly come to realize that McQueen has used basic human empathy to invite us inside, and the emotional devastation that follows is because we are human, and we believe in justice, love, and understanding.
At least, that is likely McQueen's hope when audiences engage with his film. I don't want to know the person who can watch impassively as Northup is physically, mentally, and spiritually broken, clinging to the last shreds of hope and seeing everything and everyone he loves taken away from him. Northup is a family man, a musician, and generally respected in Syracuse, New York, even in 1841. When two con men trick him into being kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South, Northup can hardly believe it, and his naivete gives way to pain and despair.
Solomon is given the slave name Platt, and he is first sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind man who nevertheless is a slaver. "You are an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it," Ford tells Solomon. Ford is weak, and due to his cowardice in confronting one of his plantation foremen, Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford sells Solomon to Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cruel, hateful drunk who when he isn't beating slaves nearly to death ("There is no sin here. A man may do as he pleases with his property.") obsesses over one of his slaves, Patsey (the amazing Lupita Nyong'o) while his wife (Sarah Paulson) seethes and rages with jealousy.
Over the years, Solomon's hope slowly is taken away from him, through beating after beating. Soon he can not conceive of a life outside his slavery, although he clings to his name, and the names of his wife and children. It is all he has. 12 YEARS A SLAVE becomes a story of just how much one man can endure, and still remain intrinsically himself. Through it all, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a blazing, heartwrenching performance. At times it is difficult to look at him. The deep sadness, anger, regret, and eventually submission are all in his eyes, and when Solomon finally breaks down and sings in agony an old spiritual, along with the other slaves on Epps' plantation, it is a hammer right into the heart.
Michael Fassbender continues his exemplary work under Steve McQueen's direction, playing an evil man who nonetheless has some tiny spark of humanity within him, and that makes it all the worse. In his heart, Epps believes that what he does is justified under God, even as he rapes Patsey, or beats his slaves. Even in his most hateful moments, Fassbender shows us the wounded, broken man inside, and we see such potential squandered to drink and ruin. Sarah Paulson, as Epps' wife, is just as great - with almost no power in the Epps household, all she can do is manipulate and scheme to figure out ways to hurt her husband, and to hurt Patsey. The evils of slavery are horrific but strangely endemic to these people, and you wonder at their cruelty, using faith and tradition to justify the most horrendous acts.
Every performance is top notch, from Brad Pitt to Paul Giamatti, but the truly powerful work here by Lupita Nyong'o is one for the ages. Patsey has long ago lost any hope of leaving the Epps plantation alive, stuck in the middle between Epps and his wife, trying to endure each day. Nyong'o makes Patsey's agony a palpable thing, and takes her character into truly dark places, places so deep that it feels like we will never see sunlight again. It is a raw, graceful performance.
John Ridley's script is a beautiful thing, full of great dialogue, and agonizing emotion. Cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who has worked with Steve McQueen before) gives the film a rich, almost pastoral look that is at odds with the horrors of its subject matter. The score by Hans Zimmer gets to the heart of the tragedy but also moves the soul.
This is a trip into hell, but what makes it especially horrifying is that this is a hell of our own design, and as Solomon looks into the camera, we are all complicit. The best historical films, like SCHINDLER'S LIST and now 12 YEARS A SLAVE, aren't interested in being utterly accurate - instead, the emotional journey is what counts, and as we walk through those woods with Solomon, McQueen, like Steven Spielberg, makes us feel every moment as more than history.
Although 12 YEARS A SLAVE is bleak, it is never hopeless. Each scene has an emotional urgency that makes the film particularly difficult to endure, but endure it we must. With 12 YEARS A SLAVE, Steve McQueen takes us through the most horrifying chapter of American history, and while we want to look away, we cannot. This is what great art is meant to do - to teach, to enlighten, and to bring us inside. This is no mere history lesson - instead, we get to live in it, despair in it, and at last, hope in it. This is cinema at its most magnificent.