More than halfway through Steve McQueen’s stunning film 12 Years A Slave, there’s a long, unforgettable close-up of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he stares off into the distance. The camera remains still as the pain in Solomon’s eyes tells us that he can no longer bare the relentless labor and abuse he has endured. Without making a single sound, Ejiofor strongly displays a sense of Solomon’s hopelessness and dehumanization. This particular moment occurs during a time when Solomon is barely a fragment of who he used to be, a free and literate black man from Saratoga, New York who was ruthlessly drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery with a new identity in the 1840s. The film, adapted from Northrup’s 1853 historic memoir by Milwaukee native John Ridley, isn’t easy to watch due to Steve McQueen’s unflinching examination of the obscenities and horror of slavery, which itself makes the film a remarkable triumph.
The film begins with an emotionally defeated Solomon, who is doing rigorous hard labor in the intense southern heat on a plantation where he and the other slaves are forced to cut crops. Within the first few minutes of the film, the audience learns that Solomon has gone through hell and is still trying to make his way out. The film transitions back to 1841, a time when he was married with two children. He earned a living as a craftsman and a musician. When his wife and children left on a trip, Solomon said his goodbyes thinking that he’d see them again in the foreseeable future. After being drugged at a dinner party by two men who claimed to be members of a traveling circus, Solomon wakes up locked in shackles, unable to escape from his new fate. He’s turned over to a callous slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who inhumanely treats Solomon and the other slaves as he displays them for auction inside his parlor where potential buyers are invited and asked to inspect at their leisure.
Solomon, who tries to hide the fact that he’s literate, ends up at the plantation of minister Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who shows a bit of sympathy towards Solomon but stays grounded and reserved. While on Ford’s plantation, Solomon snaps and attacks the troublesome overseer named Tibeats (Paul Dano), who just couldn’t handle Solomon’s intelligent awareness. This act of aggression nearly costs Solomon’s life as he’s strung up on a tree with his toes barely digging into the mud, his hands tied behind his back and a rope around his neck. McQueen leaves the camera on Solomon as he’s holding onto life. It’s a shot that proves to be almost unbearable to watch as Solomon survives the hanging by stepping onto the tip of his toes. In the background, we see other slaves walk right past Solomon as he dangles from the tree because if they dare to interfere, they’d most likely end up in the same predicament.
Due to unfortunate circumstances, Ford sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an alcoholic and psychotic cotton farmer who’s known as the “breaker” of slaves. Solomon’s time on Epps’ plantation soon becomes insufferable as he, along with the other slaves, are physically and emotionally tormented with scars on his back to show for it. His spirit doesn’t break completely as he interacts with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a distraught and vulnerable young slave who works harder than any of the men on the plantation but is faced with sexual torment by Epps and cruel punishment by Mistress Epps (a frightening Sarah Paulson), Edwin’s wife who may be even more intimidating than her husband. On the Epps’ plantation, Solomon and the other slaves are treated like props as they work in the exhausting heat under the watch of Edwin, who has no regard for the well being of his slaves. Epps and his wife are unpredictable in their nature as they occasionally awaken the slaves to bring them into their home to dance for the Epps’ pleasure. As Solomon is witness to unspeakably horrific acts, he tries to find the will to live rather than survive.
One of the major accomplishments of 12 Years A Slave is the complexity of most of the characters. This is mainly driven by the strong performances by each of the supporting actors, regardless of how limited some of their screen time is. Michael Fassbender, who previously starred in McQueen’s two features Hunger and Shame, gives a ferocious and monstrous performance as the complex Edwin Epps, a character invested in treating his slaves as inhumanely as possible. Epps is a complicated character, an alcoholic that takes out his frustrations and insecurities on his slaves. He’s constantly up front and confrontational, especially with Solomon. Fassbender immersed himself into the role and the final result is astounding.
Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is another highlight of the film for her breathtaking performance as Patsey. Her vulnerability and emotions during particular scenes makes her character stand out not only to Solomon but to the audience as well. Oh, did I mention that Brad Pitt is in the film? His character, a Canadian carpenter who befriends Solomon, doesn’t appear until the third act but plays a key role in the narrative.
Of course we can’t forget Chiwetel Ejiofor’s extraordinary performance as Solomon Northrup. Despite the strong, Oscar-worthy performances by much of the supporting cast, Ejiofor successfully carries most of the film’s emotional weight on his shoulders. Despite the series of whippings, beatings, and overall mental breakdown against which Solomon struggles, he never allows it to break him down completely. As he’s forced into his new identity as a slave, Solomon often has an expression on his face of confusion and fear. As the film moves forward, his humanistic expression deepens but never washes away, even after all that he had struggled against. Ejiofor’s portrayal of this character is nothing short of brilliant.
Director Steve McQueen continues to solidify himself as one of the boldest filmmakers working today. As displayed in both Hunger and Shame, McQueen certainly isn’t afraid to make the audience feel uneasy. His trademark long-takes, especially displayed in 12 Years A Slave, are often unflinching. Most filmmakers would often make cuts in particular sequences that McQueen chose to intricately examine, no matter how uneasy it would make the audience feel. He doesn’t shy away from the horror of slavery, an aspect that’s often ignored or sugarcoated in cinema, but rather steps over boundaries that others wouldn’t dare to cross. This aspect in particular makes the film a phenomenal and unforgettable masterwork. Despite the dark and brutal subject matter, there still remains a sense of poetic humanism behind the darkness.
12 Years A Slave is currently playing at the Oriental Theatre, AMC Mayfair, and Majestic Cinema of Brookfield.