12 Years a Slave is a masterpiece, pure and simple. The film of the decade. And it’s also one of the most difficult and frightening films you’ll ever see. Difficult and frightening because of the unpleasant truths it stirs up about human nature and the realization of just how psychopathic the institution of slavery was and always will be.
The fact that America once had an entire economy built on the dehumanization of an entire race by another, an economic system that justified–even demanded–the enslavement of blacks in order for the white ruling class of the South to prosper is a larger truth the film prompts us to reflect on while we watch, in horror, at the plight of Solomon Northup, the film’s protagonist, kidnapped and enslaved in mid-19th century America. Northup not only bears punishing torture and deprivation, he also observes the heart-rending experiences of fellow slaves, whether separated from children or beaten to within an inch of their lives. There is also psychological brutality, an all-pervading fear of the lash, the knife, of being lynched, of betrayal should Solomon even think of escape or confide the truth behind his enslavement to anyone. For twelve years, Northup bides his time, perseveres, swallows his pride and his dignity, if only to survive, waiting for the crucial window of opportunity to assert his freedom.
Adapted from Northup’s remarkable 1853 memoir, screenwriter John Ridley traces the events that led Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from being a free man, a husband and father in 1840s New York into a nightmarish odyssey through the slave trafficking network that fed the South with northern blacks and the years of hardship that follow. Duped by two conmen into traveling to the nation’s capitol, Northup suddenly finds himself captured by slave traders. Shocked and in disbelief, he joins the ranks of fellow slaves, among whom is Eliza–a mother with two children in tow–as they are transported to the New Orleans slave market. The horrors really kick in from this point on as, first, we watch as the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) separates Eliza from her children, leaving the mother a heartbroken and inconsolable wreck for the rest of her life.
Northup’s journey takes him to the plantation of a relatively kind and genteel landowner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But Ford’s mild nature isn’t mirrored by his venomous white overseer (Paul Dano), who demeans and terrorizes Northup at every step out of jealousy and spite, noting Northup’s intelligence and resourcefulness. Fearing for his slave’s safety, Ford sells Northup to the planter Epps (Michael Fassbender), inadvertently throwing him out of the frying pan and into the fire. For Epps is a demon, every bit as vile and villainous as Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List; he delights in psychologically and physically abusing his slaves. Despite his hatefulness, he harbors a perverse love for one of his slaves, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)–similar to Goeth’s fixation on his Jewish prisoner/housekeeper–and abuses her sexually.
It’s heart-rending to see Patsey’s suffering–at one point, she even implores Northup to kill her–and we wonder, as we do throughout this extraordinary film, how common such suffering and sorrow was among slaves during this time. We become aware of this vast, anonymous pain crying out from behind the walls of time and selective history. And Eliza and Patsey become two women who represent the voices of millions of forgotten black women of this era.
No other film to my mind depicts slavery–and the culture and system that nurtured it–with the direct and unapologetic starkness of 12 Years a Slave. But within that starkness, there’s humanity and love–the qualities that bind humanity to art and humans to each other. Credit for this bold and purposeful project goes to director Steve McQueen and his exceptional cast. McQueen employs, on the one hand, a shrewd sense of craftsmanship, rife with drama, suspense and heartbreak to keep us rooted. Overlaying that is a serene artfulness evident in imagery of plantations and Southern landscapes that are evocative of Winslow Homer (see The Cotton Pickers, 1876, and Veteran in a New Field, 1865), courtesy of master cinematographer Sean Bobbit. The film has the painterly sensibilities that reminded me of Terrence Malick and Julian Schnabel. But a more unexpected filmmaker that came to mind was David Lynch, particularly his The Elephant Man, which blended a strong, stark visual style to depict an environment of pervasive cruelty. There is a similar push-pull at work in 12 Years a Slave, with its hallucinatory visual and dramatic power at odds with the repulsive behavior on display.
Its brilliant aesthetic aside, this film would not be the masterpiece it is without this cast. Bold, fearless and commanding, Ejiofor is indelible as Northup. We mourn his suffering as we wait for him to make his next move, resolute in the idea of securing freedom. Surrounding him are brilliant performances from those whose characters personify evil, like Dano, Giamatti and, particularly, Paulson as Epps’s hateful and vindictive wife. Trust me, this woman will live on as one of the screen’s great villains. The chameleon Fassbender continues his run as one of the screen’s most compelling stars, playing the conflicted and fascinating Epps; few actors can make evil this watchable (only Fiennes, see above). Most moving is Nyong’o as the resilient Patsey, a woman whose spirit we watch degrade in the course of the film and whose friendship with Northup burns like a few precious flakes of ember in the cold night of the film’s suffering.
There’s a lot you’ll have to confront within yourself while watching this film, but no other movie this year will connect you more deeply with your own humanity. It’s for these reasons and so many more that 12 Years a Slave must be witnessed. Once you do witness it, you’ll never want to again. No matter, though, because its imagery, its message, its savagery will have claimed a part of your soul forever. You will never be the same again.
Directed by: Steve McQueen
Written by: John Ridley
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt