Steve McQueen’s emotionally jarring biopic, 12 Years a Slave, depicts slavery in a way that few, if any, have ever dared.
Slavery was a dark and shameful time in American history — unequivocally the darkest. Yet while the era has been portrayed on the silver screen in countless films, director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) presents it with unprecedented realism in 12 Years a Slave — one of the most profoundly gut-wrenching, visceral works of 21st-century cinema you’re bound to encounter.
The film’s discomforting imagery is depicted with shrewd precision and unflinching directness, both pivotal to the potency of the film. But McQueen also proves himself to be a uniquely accomplished storyteller, and the story here is extraordinary. Based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 autobiography of the same name, 12 Years follows a free black man’s sudden and traumatic fall into the hands of Southern doctrinaires.
A well-educated and a talented musician, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Children of Men) is lured to D.C. from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., as a violinist for a traveling circus. After a successful first night, one too many glasses of wine are enjoyed before Northup awakes in chains and is subsequently stripped of his clothes, lashed and ferried to New Orleans as a white man’s bargaining chip, leaving behind his wife and two children.
Kidnapped under false pretenses (his abductors bestowing him the name Platt), Northup must hide his identity (and his intellect) to survive. After being purchased by plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), he is eventually handed over to the abusive “slave-breaker” Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Shame) after several quarrels with Tibeats (Paul Dano, Looper), the overseer of Ford’s property. Under Epps’ ownership, Northup endures and witnesses unimaginable suffering, both physical and psychological, as he longs for the life he once lived: his own.
Remarkable performances abound from the entire cast of actors, which also includes Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt and a breakthrough performance from Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a young slave whom Northup takes under his wing. Ejiofor’s performance is particularly pure, though, impassioned and engaging in a way that elicits as much despair in the viewer as is felt by his own character. Fassbender, meanwhile, is one of the most convincing (and harrowing) villains to come along in some time.
While the cast undoubtedly ought to be lauded, 12 Years is a careerdefining work for McQueen. The gifted director illustrates tragedy and torment — through elongated shots of horrific abuse, rape and public humiliation — without any sympathy for his audience and in a way that invests you emotionally as if you are witnessing it all firsthand. The scenes that resonate most do so not because they are gruesome but because they’re engrossing, they’re scenes that leave your conscience reeling and your insides aching.
Serving in contrast to the film’s relative uneasiness, dead air and ambiance are masterfully utilized through nature-rich transition shots, inanimate close-ups and challenging the viewer to extrapolate thoughts from expressions rather than dialogue. It’s uniquely un-Hollywood in both scope and execution, with a cognitive density that even outweighs its visual counterpart.
Few movies this year will rival 12 Years a Slave’s sweeping array of emotions, but none will match the depth with which they are felt. To make a film — especially one with such an astonishing story — about an injustice so profound that doesn’t leave you with emotional scars would be a travesty. And if 12 Years a Slave came anywhere close to the real thing, it ought to be considered a triumph.