Brutal yet elegant, 12 Years a Slave is a beautifully rendered punch to the gut about the most shameful chapter in American history. Based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup – an educated freeman from Saratoga, New York, who endured a nightmare of involuntary servitude after being kidnapped – this is no Tarantino revenge fantasy in which the oppressed ultimately prevails over his oppressors. This film embraces a transcendent authenticity, down to its period vernacular (words like “luxuriate” and “countenance” pepper everyday conversation) and unadorned rural settings of muted and saturated greens. With the exception of a chance conversation between Northup and a Canadian abolitionist about the morality of slavery toward the film’s end, nothing rings false here. (To be fair: The aforementioned scene is integral to the conclusion of Northup’s harrowing ordeal.) The refusal to sentimentalize the story’s overwhelming emotions or to manipulate its solemn themes bestows 12 Years a Slave with a graceful dignity, as personified in Ejiofor’s mournful performance as a man of constant sorrow. Those moist, watery eyes communicate the despair of a human being who has inexplicably lost his freedom but dares to hope to regain it one day. It’s a painful yearning that dominates the film without overwhelming it. Once you get inside those eyes, it’s hard to feel anything else.
Other performances in the film are equally effective. As Northup’s second master, the slave owner Edwin Epps, Fassbender is a revelation. He is at once monstrous and pathetic, a petty tyrant with a sadistic need to own and abuse human chattel. It’s the best thing Fassbender has done so far in a promising career. As Patsey, the waifish female slave who outpicks men three times her size in the cotton field and unwittingly triggers Epps’ perverse lust and uncontrollable anger, newcomer Nyong’o exhibits the strength and the frailty of a woman burdened by the horrors of a life that has seldom experienced joy. (She withstands rape and lashings in the course of the film.) A scene in which Patsey begs Northup to end her misery is utterly heartbreaking. And Woodward’s cameo as a well-dressed, tea-sipping house slave who has learned to work the system is unforgettable, despite her few minutes of screen time.
In his two earlier films, Hunger and Shame, British director McQueen explored the psychology of control with mixed success. His fastidious style (including a penchant for long, unblinking takes) exhibited a propensity to control (no small irony there) rather than complement those narratives. 12 Years a Slave, however, is the work of a more confident filmmaker. The static tableaux are painterly and evocative; the extended scenes now serve a purpose beyond technique. Case in point: His neck in a noose hanging from a tree in the plantation yard and his bare feet barely touching the muddy ground below him, Northup performs a grotesque dance as he struggles to keep upright in the liquefying muck. In time, other slaves enter the yard to perform daily tasks and children begin to play nearby; all the while Northup carefully and intently maneuvers to stay alive, one slip away from certain death. The scene goes on for what seems like an eternity. It is a horrible thing to witness, and yet you can’t look away from this man’s determination to survive. In this moment, 12 Years a Slave becomes a movie for the ages. Absolutely remarkable.
12 Years a Slave, Steve McQueen, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, Garret Dillahunt, Brad Pitt