Two men labor on sweltering a Louisiana afternoon, planing wood and hammering nails into an small unfinished building. To their own eyes, they are equal; sharing conversation and stories of their lives. But equal they are not; one a free white man working for wage, the other a black man in bondage, working simply because it is what he was sold to do. “Your story is amazing,” the free man says to the slave. “And in no good way.” That really is the most essential way to describe the incredible true story of Solomon Northrup, who was kidnapped from his home and family to be sold into slavery. Based on Northrup's 1853 memoir, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave stares unblinking into arguably the darkest chapter of the United States' history, making a case for itself as the definitive American horror story.
In 1814, still 59 years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives as an upstanding citizen in Saratoga, NY – an atypically progressive community for its time. A gifted violinist by trade and a decent man by nature, he is free and proud to walk the streets with his family, wearing his finest clothes, frequenting the finest shops, sheltered from common bigotry by his respected status. But this dream existence proves to be just that: a dream – one from which he awakens in shackles, alone and confused in a cold, dark cell. Daring to insist to his captors that he is free man and justice shall be done, he is flogged, menaced, and stripped of his identity along with his bloodied shirt. He is Solomon Northrup no more. He is a “Georgia runaway” by the name of Platt, or so he must pretend if he wishes to survive his waking nightmare.
The verbal and visual metaphors of John Ridley's eloquent screenplay do not beat around the bush in likening the slaves to livestock, bluntly advertized as “fine beasts” by a particularly shrewd and unfeeling slave trader played by Paul Giamatti. It is he who first sells Solomon to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a fair and compassionate plantation owner who appreciates the value of Solomon's education. It's enough to make us momentarily forget that even kindly slavers are still slavers, making business decisions that irreparably destroy lives, profiting from a system wherein acts of cruelty have become the norm. In the case of one near-lynching, McQueen illustrates with unnerving restraint the indifference felt on both sides of the racial divide, conveying how deeply embedded the evil of slavery is in this place.
Solomon's odyssey becomes more tortuous yet as he is passed into the hands of Edwin Epps, whom Ridley and McQueen make plain is the true animal. They have Epps – a drunken, violent, sadistic man – literally rolling with swine at one point. His wickedness might seem cartoonishly over-the-top were it not for Michael Fassbender's artfully unhinged performance. His mouth may spew empty “truths” from the Bible to justify his immorality, but his eyes suggest an even more deep-seeded self-loathing that manifests itself in every heinous whipping, rape, and act of psychological abuse. The layers of Fassbender's work reveal Epps to be not a monster, but a human being, and that's the most frightening thing about him.
It's unsurprising then that his favourite slave, a young woman named Patsy (Lupita N'yongo), would be his most victimized. Helpless against not only his paranoid rages, but those of his venomously jealous wife (the excellent Sarah Paulson), Patsy could easily have become an object of misery porn. And yet McQueen and N'yongo are too tactful to let that happen, so the severity of Patsy's suffering is carefully paced and revealed in silence, up until the film's most brutal set piece.
True to the aesthetic characterized by his first two features, Hunger and Shame, McQueen effectively employs long single takes for harrowing sequences like these. Whether allowing the camera to linger on an unsettling tableau or shifting from face to face in the same tracking shot, McQueen and his director of photography Sean Bobbit develop a visual language for 12 Years a Slave that manages to objectively confront the matter-of-fact-ness of these scenes while also exploring their emotional breadth. The audience can only sit transfixed in appalled silence at the atrocities on display.
Such attention to detail extends to all corners of this production, including Patricia Norris' costumes, Adam Stockhausen's sets, Joe Walker's editing, and especially Leslie Shatz and Ryan Collins' intricate sound design. Simple yet distinctive sounds – a violin string being tightened, the crack of a whip, a prolonged wail of anguish – take on subtextual meanings as they penetrate the drone of wind sifting through the cotton plants, or bleed from one scene into another.
And at the centre of it all, holding our gaze when we'd rather not watch, is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He delivers a haunting portrayal of an intelligent yet crucially naïve man; a man once blissfully blind to the plight of his race until he is dragged through all nine circles of hell in chains, losing something even more irreplaceable than twelve years of his life in the process (even if the film doesn't quite adequately convey that passage of time). There could be no happy endings to this story, even in salvation. Solomon may regain his name, but never again can he truly become the man he was before. His ordeal truly was amazing, and it was truly in no good way.
**** out of ****