A film as unflinching and powerful as Steve McQueen's 12 Years A Slave is enough to force a reevaluation of other cinematic interpretations of slavery in the Antebellum Era south. The wistful southern charm of Gone with the Wind and the indulgent vengeance of Django Unchained are rendered wholly inadequate in the face of such stunning, blunt emotional impact, and McQueen endeavors to have us feel every stinging lash of the whip; every personal injustice. But more than just the endless string of physical tortures, it's how McQueen depicts with such cold finality the utter hopelessness experienced by the enslaved.
One doesn't really enjoy a movie like 12 Years A Slave; one survives it and endures the brutal string of tortures that would put Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ to shame. Most of which would be impossible to bear if it wasn't for McQueen's keen storytelling eye, gorgeous cinematography, and a run of performances so perfectly played they will likely swell up the Oscar race. At the head of that list is Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor many have thought to be an unsung Best Actor winner, who brings a quiet, smoldering dignity to the role of Solomon Northrup. Solomon's incredible, almost impossible to believe true story was chronicled in his 1853 memoir, a book that McQueen has been aching to adapt for years. The attention to detail he brings to adapting the material comes through in every painstaking moment, delivering the definitive look at slavery ever depicted in film.
Northrup was a free black living in New York with his wife and children (including Beast of the Southern Wild's Quvenzhane Wallis), who enjoyed a life of privilege thanks to his carpentry and fiddling skills. He was living the American dream that so many of his kind were being denied every single day, but he experiences their anguish and disenfranchisement in full when he's approached by two men (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam) with an enticing job offer in Washington, D.C., one that turned out too good to be true. A night of heavy drinking and considerable ego-boosting having left him in a stupor (or possibly poisoned), he awakens to find he's been shackled in chains, ready to be shipped off to heaven knows where as a slave. Yes, it's true. A free black man in America, whose father was granted his freedom years earlier and thus Solomon had never once known slavery in his life, had it thrust upon him unjustly in an incredible act of pure evil. But it's nothing compared to the heinous acts that follow, as Solomon protests his captivity and is immediately forced into a subservient position and beaten within an inch of his life for daring to even suggest a right to freedom.
Is it all just a case of mistaken identity, or the willful ignorance of those who take sadistic pleasure in stripping a freeborn black man of his essential liberties? In the end it doesn't really matter, and McQueen lends a grounded focus solely on Solomon's ordeal. Renamed Platt and sold to a cotton plantation down South, Solomon attempts to maintain a sense of self in the face of unimaginable horrors inflicted not only upon him, but in those he becomes close to. Through flashbacks we see happier moments in his life, get a sense of the adoration he has for his family. "I don't just want to survive, I want to live." he expresses defiantly early on, but we see that attitude change quickly in the face of unending torment. Soon it becomes a matter of living day-by-day, with hope that at some point he will find a way back home.
Hope is in short supply, though, even when under the ownership of a reasonably decent master in William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher who relies on the Bible as moral justification for the "peculiar institution" of slavery. He's contrast by his sleazeball field manager played by Paul Dano, a sadist who relishes in the brutal beatings he dishes out, especially to educated slaves like Solomon. The seemingly antithetical juxtaposition of faith and human cruelty is laid bare often and effectively by McQueen and co-writer John Ridley, most especially during one scene where Dano's cruel boss sings a fearful song about chasing and killing runaway slaves, while Cumberbatch reads holy scripture to his gathered captors.
There are small triumphs along the way, such as Solomon developing an effective raft system for his master's logging exports, and his efforts often found him treated somewhat better than others. However, it's mostly cruelty he faces, and as he's sold from one master to the next it only gets worse until he ends up in the hands of frenzied, alcoholic slave-breaker Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is wildly dangerous and psychotic, but he's nothing compared to his vile, bloodthirsty wife (Sarah Paulson) who resents his not-so-secret love affair with Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), the best cotton-picker on his plantation. The victims of indignities unique to their gender, such being forcibly separated from their children, or being unable to resist their masters' sexual advances, women were an underclass among an underclass. If slaves were already treated like cattle then the vast majority of women were treated like dirt. There are a very few exceptions, though. Alfre Woodard turns up for an enlightening and spirited cameo as a black woman who parlayed her master's favor into a comfortable mistress position, often delighting in Patsey's company. However, Patsey's beauty only earns her more scorn, abuse, and unrelenting humiliations too numerous to count.
McQueen has never been one to shy away from the toughest emotions, and 12 Years A Slave is unabashedly graphic and thus very tough to sit through. And that's exactly how it should be, really, and McQueen forces us to watch what he knows many would rather be swept under the rag and forgotten. Employing his trademark long-takes liberally, McQueen uses them in a variety of different ways, some for study and some to maximize a scene's power. In one especially unforgettable case, McQueen leaves us to twist in the wind right along Solomon as he silently dangles near-death in a noose for what feels like hours.
Often the extensive takes serve to give room for Ejiofor to express the fear, anger, and resignation in a mostly understated, dialogue-free performance. His grounded approach brings an added layer of authenticity, especially during the few times when Solomon is called upon to do more than just react, such as a devastating scene where he's forced to mercilessly whip a fellow slave. While he's always been great, Ejiofor reaches new heights here and emphatically establishes himself as one of today's top actors. A number of supporting turns are just as effective, mostly because we come to hate so many of the loathsome characters so thoroughly. Dano and Paul Giamatti do sleazy better than almost anyone, and Paulson is perfectly chilly as Epps' cold-hearted wife. Newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is a revelation as Patsey, while Fassbender's riveting, feral performance as Epps is one of his best in an already-storied career. Brad Pitt, who also exec-produced the film, turns up towards the end in a pivotal role, looking like he just walked off the set of Breaking Amish, but he's solid as one of the few white people who isn't complete monster.
After Hunger and Shame, there was some idea that McQueen would take on a film with broader appeal, something more crowd-pleasing. This is not that movie, and it's doubtful McQueen will ever make one that is anything less than challenging. 12 Years A Slave is more than just one of the best movies of the year, it stands alongside Roots as a significant cinematic contribution to this country's never ending discussion about slavery.