12 Years a Slave is a remarkable true story. In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a successful black violinist from New York is convinced to travel to play a series of shows in the District of Columbia. A free man, Solomon finds himself conned in a horrific manner, sold into slavery, with nobody either interested or willing to believe he’s anything other than just another slave.
Days become weeks, turning into months and years, all with Solomon struggling with his situation. Speaking up about his history leads to violence, but doing nothing and becoming just another cotton-picker isn’t an acceptable fate either. Yet, what choice does a black man in 1840s have when freedom is based more on geography than anything else.
Directed by Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) and adapted from Northup’s own writing by John Ridley (Red Tails), 12 Years a Slave is, as said, a remarkable true story. It’s not quite a remarkable film; it’s a really good one though. The two have made a vivid depiction of the terror that one man owning another comes with, along with the thin lines in which the happening dwelled.
Northup’s condition is a unique one, even if it was more common than most realize. He was largely more educated than many of his owners, yet had to hide his knowledge and skills to survive, learning along the way that trusting anyone with the truth could come with severe consequences. His thought that by keeping an almost civil attitude towards his enslavement would aid him would prove a foolhardy one. It’s perhaps the most compelling element of the picture. By no means is Northup depicted as the “Uncle Tom” figure of any sort, he does verbally and physically fight back early in his capture. However, Northup keeps a distance between himself and his fellow men and women. He doesn’t sing along while picking cotton. He doesn’t outwardly mourn the loss of his family members. Northup keeps it inside, depicted through Ejiofor’s haunted face, not his words.
Ejiofor has long been a supporting staple, even as he’s been an excellent lead/co-lead in movies like Dirty Pretty Things and Talk to Me. His performance can felt to the bone, in no small part due to its quiet nature, allowing for the moments where he does let his despair or hope come to the forefront to hit harder. It’s a subtle performance, one of the movie’s few.
Northup has two owners in his twelve years captive. The first is the more compelling, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. He portrays a man mildly conflicted with slavery, a fan of how it helps his financial stakes, even if it turns his stomach to keep things in line. The nuance is not seen later in Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, a volcanic fellow prone to many a drink, sleeping with the female slaves and angry diatribes. The part and the performance live on the line off too-much and just far enough, stepping on both sides along the way. There are times where Epps is appropriately terrifying. There are times where Epps feels like a performance in a movie, undercutting the reality McQueen shoots for.
Hans Zimmer’s score is another trouble, honking its away into things, using the same notes and pattern he insists on using in moments of epic intimacy. The main theme, a light plinking of lovely chords, is nearly identical to ones he’s used for Inception and most famously in The Thin Red Line. It distracts when it should move.
Luckily there are so many riches here, even if they aren’t the warmest. Lupita Nyong’o is simply amazing as Patsey, the most prized slave of Epps who, despite her small frame, reliably picks more cotton per day than her larger cohorts. She also smiles freely with Epps and is allowed to visit a neighboring plantation for tea and treats. The slow stripping away of these perks as Epps wife (an icy Sarah Paulson) grows jealous allows for a trio of dramatic beats that are frankly unforgettable. Brad Pitt also pops in towards the end of the film, awful accent in-tow, for a slightly clunky chunk of plot.
In the end 12 Years a Slave is a moving feature. It’s whole, nonetheless, doesn’t always equal its finest pieces, of which are astounding.
12 Years a Slave is currently playing in limited release in Seattle.