Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave is a powerful work of art that will pack an undeniable punch for anyone not familiar with the horrors of slavery, and a very visceral one for those who are. It is undoubtedly the most in depth look at the "peculiar institution" that poisoned our country for hundreds of years since the television series Roots captivated the nation thirty-six years ago, and such reminders of our past are always necessary, so as not to forget the tragic past that we come from.
The story is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, essentially plucked from his comfortable life in Saratoga, NY where he lived as an educated free man with his family. McQueen tosses us into his life as a slave early in the film and then flashes back, where we see how idyllic his situation was (perhaps a little too idyliic- the North was not exactly a bastion of racial equality in the mid-19th century) and how it took a hard left turn when he was tricked by two men into traveling to the the nation's capitol for a musical performance (Solomon is a talented violinist) and then drugged, waking up in chains. His cries for help after being beaten into submission by a slavedriver are not heard, and soon Solomon is renamed Platt and loaded onto a boat headed for the Deep South.
From that point on the film follows an episodic structure as Solomon is sold first to a plantation run by a benevolent slaveowner (Benedict Cumberbatch) and then to that of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an angry, crazy alcoholic who alternately takes pride and misery in controlling all movements of the lives he considers his property. McQueen is a very talented image-maker, and throughout the film his art background is on full display- there are shots of forlorn slaves staring out at their existence that resemble pictures of Southern plantations from history books, and one of several slaves unrolled from a wagon as if they were cattle. Another is a mesmerizing long take where Solomon is hung from a tree for an excruciating length of time as life goes on in the background behind him, where children frolic and the white mistress of the plantation looks on with cruel indifference. The film was shot in Louisiana, and the beautiful landscape is directly contrasted with the horrors that inhabit it, as slaves walk among the trees and unbearable heat with a solemn disposition that makes you feel the pained existence of those who suffered.
However, despite the artistry and craft at work, the movie is not without its drawbacks. The screenplay by John Ridley is riddled with unnaturally fanciful language, almost Shakespearean in its rhythms, which for me took some getting used to, as hearing such artificial dialect so consistently from every character was a bit distracting, threatening at times to take me out of the experience. And Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a masterful performance as Solomon, for which he should be given all the credit in the world, because his character is not the most compelling. You feel for Solomon as a man who's had everything taken from him in an instant and who does nothing but suffer beatings and whippings from that moment onward, but rarely do we get to know him as a person. We know that his life was good before his capture and that he was a literate man who enjoyed playing the violin but not much more is explored about him, and at times he is nothing more than the object of suffering. But again, thanks to Ejiofor's tremendously expressive eyes and face, we are drawn in to his ordeal as much as we can be.
The supporting characters in the film are more colorful and complicated, especially Cumberbatch and Fassbender as two different slaveowners. Cumberbatch is Ford, the so-called "good man," who wants to save Solomon's life and doesn't like to cause suffering, yet under the system of slavery there is no such thing as a good man who participates in its practices. And Fassbender's Epps is the most complicated character in the movie, a man so vile in the way he treats other human beings, yet conflicted in his own mind about his feelings for the slave woman, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and cruel to his wife (Sarah Paulsen), herself driven into anger, hatred and depression over his obsession and preference for Patsey to her. Epps seems to dull his self-loathing with alcohol and is the living proof of an indentured servant's claim that inflicting subhuman torture on other human beings day in and day out does things to a man and shapes his character in twisted ways that can never be undone.
This is very grim subject matter and the film is a tough sit, with constant scenes of beatings and torture inflicted on people over the course of two hours. Even though Solomon's "happy" ending eventually comes through, it's an emotional release that is only a mild relief, as the movie reminds us there were so many left behind who didn't survive the system. I can't say that the film was a pleasant experience or even an enlightening one, which is my biggest problem with it. For those who are familiar with the horrors of slavery, this is a story of survival, yes, but it's also a statement about slavery that for me, offered nothing new on the subject. Its value may be more important in years to come, as the go-to movie about American slavery in order to introduce people to the topic. For that reason, it's an important historical record, but given that Roots is still around and available for viewing, I don't think that this film offers any more insights into slavery than that groundbreaking series did, which was the first to show Americans the realities of slaves sold on the auction blocks, families being forcibly separated, and endless whippings and beatings as punishment for misbehavior- all ground that is covered again in this movie. McQueen can take you in deeper and make you feel the pain in a more graphic and visceral manner, but I'm not sure that brutal violence itself is all that's necessary for emotional identification and sorrow, especially at the expense of further developed characters and relationships between Solomon, Patsey and the other slaves.
Still, 12 Years a Slave is a very admirable achievement and a step further in McQueen's directorial career, and the movie is obviously going to be showered with a lot of awards season love, much of it very deserved, especially for the performances. I'd recommend it highly, as it's worth seeing for the actors in particular.