Such is the power of 12 Years a Slave that most of the discourse surrounding its release has been less about its overall quality, because the consensus is that it’s a great film, and more about whether it may in fact be the definitive film made on the topic of slavery. While this is a foolhardy argument to have before a movie comes out and its reception is approached by level heads, it’s nevertheless a testament to both the power of Steve McQueen’s latest achievement, and to just how long a great many people have been waiting for a film like this.
12 Years a Slave does not flinch at the particulars of slavery, or gloss over them in order to tell larger and hindsight-aided stories about survival during one of the ugliest moments in U.S. history. In fact, McQueen makes you look. There are precious few cutaways, and none of the moments of parallel levity that took the sting off some of Django Unchained’s ugliest moments. There is only the stark reality of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) twelve years spent in bondage after being abducted from his life as a freeman and violinist in New York by a pair of slave-selling hucksters. McQueen turns the early scenes into a real-life horror movie, where the ominous tension starts small, and expands into the exponentially increased horrors of a slave auction, and onward to Solomon’s time with various owners.
Ejiofor is truly incredible from start to finish. McQueen’s approach to Solomon’s struggle is seamless, eschewing onscreen titles or obvious discussions of lapsed time or virtually anything that could briefly detach a viewer from their immersion into Solomon’s real-life nightmare. Through this approach, Ejiofor is tasked with conveying the increasing weight of servitude and the toll on a human spirit that playing an obedient and servile role can take. He does so masterfully, conveying Solomon’s increasing age and exhaustion while always stoking a small fire of resolve. No matter how close that fire comes to being extinguished, and there are several moments in 12 Years a Slave where it nearly is, Ejiofor serves as a vision of dignity, of the indomitability of sheer will against truly abominable conditions.
For the most part, McQueen’s film rises to meet its amazing lead performance. This is easily the director’s most accessible work, brutal though it is; largely gone are the impressionistic long takes of Shame and Hunger, replaced by lush Southern landscapes and swelling strings. (The score fluctuates between the latter and industrial atmospherics, an odd choice throughout.) If the film gets just a bit too obvious at a few points, particularly in the case of a late-game appearance by executive producer Brad Pitt that should be used to illustrate a quintessential deus ex machina in film classes, McQueen nevertheless approaches his difficult and thoroughly complex subject matter with barely a wasted frame to be found.
Ejiofor is hardly the only actor of note in 12 Years a Slave. Boasting the sort of credits that would see a lesser film accused of stunt casting, McQueen understands well the value of having stellar actors in every scene, rather than just the big ones. Alfre Woodard is wonderful in a one-scene appearance as a slave owner’s mistress, who understands that living well is better than living in agony, even if she’s no freer than the men and women she watches in the fields. Benedict Cumberbatch is also great as Solomon’s first owner, a man whose relative kindness is hardly mistaken by the film for true kindness. Though Solomon is afforded a violin and is protected from a vicious overseer (Paul Dano), these are only the vestiges of freedom.
Those vestiges disappear the second Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Fassbender is a monster as Epps; he’s known to enjoy the frequent, forcible company of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, spectacular), much to the chagrin of his wife (Sarah Paulson). There’s no place for a man of Solomon’s education or spirit on the Epps plantation, the sort of plantation where Epps reminds his slaves of their inhumanity on a constant basis and his wife abuses them like insolent animals at will. As the years go by without hope of reprieve, and as even the smallest overture of hope could well threaten Solomon’s life, Solomon is largely kept alive by his fear for Patsey’s safety and by his retreats into the cloister of memory, where the man he was remains alive and defiant.
The film may wrap up and end rather hastily, a move potentially inspired by McQueen’s awareness of what a taxing experience 12 Years a Slave is to that point, but in a lot of notable ways it never does. The discourse around slavery still allows for men like Cumberbatch’s plantation runner, men who owned other human beings but weren’t the worst people overall. There are people to this day who believe that Epps was on to something with his belief that the status of certain human beings as innately inferior is less an opinion than an immovable fact informed by scripture. And there are probably viewers who will be repulsed by 12 Years a Slave, who think it inappropriate or unsavory to make starkly clear that which is often only discussed with euphemisms. 12 Years a Slave is not a biopic, nor is it an “Oscar movie” condensing sordid history into a solvable time frame. It is the origin story of suffering around the world, and it offers no answers, and racism is hardly overcome by somebody learning how to play football. Steve McQueen wants us to look at one of history’s truest atrocities, and we won’t be able to do anything but acquiesce.