An intense, powerful, and deeply affecting film with scenes that will turn in your mind long after the credits roll, 12 Years A Slave is an unflinching and sober look at U.S. chattel slavery. It thankfully does not hold to the romantic ideation of the antebellum south, but shows in stark relief the daily realities of a slave. With clear eyes and sharp focus, Steve McQueen’s directorial style can almost feel documentarian. Based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, the film relates the tale of the author. Born free in New York, drugged, kidnapped, and sold into human bondage in Louisiana, Northup alternately labors and suffers under many masters until he is finally recovered after his twelve years of toil.
The film is chiefly carried by the abundantly talented Chiwetel Ejiofor, who I have been a fan since his role in Serenity and when I heard he was attached to this project, I was ecstatic. I knew Ejiofor, not only could, but would deliver. Believe the hype; Ejiofor’s performance is unforgettable. His face expressed the confusion, anger, and despair written in every inch of his body of a person who has come to accept that this living hell of slavery will be the rest of his life. Benedict Cumberbatch also does a fantastic job portraying Master Ford, who Northup (now renamed Platt) first sees as a kind person, considering his situation. However, Ford is still a slave master and his kindness is proven to be a mask that covers his cowardice. When Ford is confronted with the truth of Northup’s circumstances Ford advises him to be quiet, he has debts to pay and cannot do so without him.
Michael Fassbender, a Steve McQueen favorite, is the chilling, sadistic, and brutal Master Epps. Fassbender is terrifying as he tears through the slave cabins in a drunken stupor, waking his slaves from slumber to force them to dance for his pleasure and then whips them if they fail to fulfill their duties to his satisfaction the next day. He rapes and tortures his hardest work, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) to appease his wife’s (Sarah Paulson) jealousy of her. Nyong’o shines in her performance as Patsey. She is light when is able to relax in the company of Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the ex-slave and now wife to a neighboring white farmer, but the air crackles when she is forced under the eyes of Epps to do his bidding.
Northup’s salvation and providence is realized in Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Bass; a traveling carpenter and Canadian who is unafraid to tell Epps how wrong he believes slavery to be. After gaining Northup’s trust, Bass agrees to send a letter to inform his friends and relatives in New York of his fate and location. The reunion of Northup and his family is as nearly heartbreaking as it is joyous.
Typically, films dealing with such heavy and raw subject matter effort to lighten the audience with comical scenes. Not only would this be inappropriate with this film, it would also be untrue to the spirit of the book. Long looks at the surrounding and greatly varying environment of Louisiana linger, some might feel these scenes drag (the film is a full 133 minutes), but they are meant as a respite for the heavy hearts of the audience.
This is not a film to to Redbox nor Netflix. It is beautiful, dark and horrible and truly one of the best films you will see this year, if not ever. It is an impressive feat executed with a true desire to get things right.