Lupita Nyong'o stars as Patsey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the once free Solomon Northup in '12 Years a Slave.' (Francois Duhamel)
Chilling, brutal and dark, “12 Years a Slave” shoves the reality of slavery right in your face, leaving no avenue for escape.
As such, it’s far from an enjoyable film. But then director Steve McQueen, working with a screenplay by John Ridley based on the real-life book written by Solomon Northup, isn’t out to have fun.
He’s out to capture man’s inhumanity to man, and at the same time, the perseverance of the human spirit. That he does this with more honesty than cinema has so far been able to muster on the subject is both commendable and impressive.
The story is surprisingly straightforward. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a masterful, layered performance) was a free black man, a violinist in upstate New York in the years before the Civil War. He had a family and good standing in the community.
Approached by two men, he accepts a job playing in the Washington, D.C., area. After dinner with his employers one evening, he awakes a captive in chains. He has been kidnapped and is shipped south, where he’s sold into slavery.
His first owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) strives to be decent, and even allows Solomon to be inventive in his work. But this sours Solomon’s white supervisor (Paul Dano), who eventually turns on him, nearly causing his death.
So Solomon is sold to a different plantation owner, the vile Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man known for breaking the spirits of slaves, and things quickly go from very bad to far worse.
Epps’ home life is a nightmare. He is obsessed with a young slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who he regularly rapes; this obsession enrages Epps’ wife (an icy Sarah Paulson), who then regularly abuses Patsey. And all Solomon can do is watch this hellish drama play out.
The clear progression of the narrative is heightened by scenes McQueen sets along the way — beatings, embarrassments, fierce frustrations, outright sadism.
The most powerful scene finds Solomon, his neck in a noose, feet barely on the ground, straining for hours to stay erect and thus alive. Meanwhile, as he hangs there, slave children play in the background and other slaves go about their chores, paying no attention. This is simply how it is; this is the worth of a black man’s life.
But “12 Years” isn’t about all slaves, it’s about one slave, a specific man. An educated, refined man who suddenly finds himself in a community where most of his peers have never known anything but slavery. For years, Solomon stands apart, but in one scene, at a funeral, he finds himself caught up in religious song, and he becomes part of something — even if it is something born of pain and awfulness.
There’s a softness, a beauty, to Ejiofor’s features that lets all the complexities of Solomon play across his face — for all its richness you never guess at his performance. This holds true with McQueen’s direction as well — he builds an art film upon a plain and awful story.
“12 Years a Slave” lays out an institution so twisted and wrong that its honest portrayal has been avoided for centuries. Yes, it’s dark and brutal. It needs to be.
'12 Years a Slave'
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Running time: 133 minutes