In 1841 Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black violinist living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife and children, was invited by two white performers to join them on a lucrative circus tour. It was a trap, however, and Northup was kidnapped and given a new identity: Platt Hamilton, runaway Georgia slave. Thus begins the titular experience of 12 Years a Slave, a film based on a true story from antebellum America. Northup is sold to William Ford of Louisiana (Benedict Cumberbatch), a relatively compassionate man. But after clashing with an overseer on Ford’s sugarcane plantation, he is sent to the cotton estate of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is sadistic and fixated on his young slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
The depraved mentality Solomon is up against can be described as viciousness bordering on the psychotic. Epps is the most egregious example, but most every slave owner in the film seems to relish being cruel. One former overseer, who is made to pick cotton alongside Epps’s slaves, thinks so many whites in the slave milieu are unhinged or dissolute because “no man can whip another daily without tearing himself apart.” Identities on both sides are torn asunder. Solomon gradually decides he must adopt a submissive demeanor, alter his manner of speech and stifle his talents and intellect in order to survive. Having determined it is fruitless to fight back or attempt an escape, he looks for a chance to send word home.
The film astonishes because it is so wrenching yet unsentimental, so devastating yet sober, so harrowing yet beautiful. But be forewarned: even knowing that Solomon’s odyssey ends eventually, it is hard to find joy in this unsettling work.
Sean Bobbitt, who photographed director Steve McQueen’s previous movies, “Hunger” and “Shame,” delivers evocative imagery throughout this carefully calibrated film. Based on the book Northup published in 1853 about his ordeal, it forcefully portrays the barbarity and perverse logic behind antebellum slavery. It examines the institution without reaching for a rhetorical whip, moral cudgel or anything designed to assuage ethical or aesthetic sensibilities.
The most incredible aspect of Northup’s story is that he lived to tell it. One pivotal sequence is so devastating you wonder how anyone could have survived it. Solomon faces an agonizing moral quandary that, if treated in an exploitative way, would repel; instead it invites reflection.
McQueen eschews the gratuitously graphic without flinching from the disturbing subject matter. As a rule, the faces of those being brutalized are not shown while they’re being beaten. This isn’t a cop-out, particularly since ghastly sound effects and other visuals trigger ample empathetic immediacy. Rather, this absence of faces signifies the slaves’ lack of humanity in the eyes of their owners. It also emphasizes for the viewer that what is being lacerated is not the victim’s entire self. The characters’ souls, something essential, remain intact. That said, Patsey gets whipped and the fiendish Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) disfigures her twice, suggesting that in her pitiable case physical and spiritual torment are indivisible.
Epps’s neighbor, Shaw, evidently sublimates his guilt by womanizing. His wife (Alfre Woodard) was once his slave, and she mentors Patsey. In one of the movie’s lightest scenes, she says turning a blind eye to her husband’s infidelity is a small price to pay for living in the manor house and being labor-exempt. She’s not very convincing, however, and you sense her cheery mask comes with unseen shackles.
McQueen’s restrained, pictorial style contrasts with Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy “Django Unchained,” about a freed slave who exacts bloody revenge on slaveholders circa 1858. Tarantino delights in crafting cartoonish, pop-culture-infused mayhem, and his protagonists meet violence with violence. In “Hunger” and “Shame,” McQueen presented arty images of extreme physical distress, namely, starvation and sex addiction. Here he goes further, successfully using corporeal damage to access a more complex level of meaning. And he does so without holding up Solomon’s saga as emblematic of the history of slavery.
The dialogue and period accents sound stilted at first, but the authenticity of John Ridley’s script comes through—in part because it is free of anachronistic usages or torrents of four-letter words (see “Django Unchained”). There are numerous stunning edits and juxtapositions of imagery, but no symbol is allowed to carry too much weight. For example, Solomon’s use of berry juice as ink is a vivid reminder of his literacy yet not a substitute for his blood. Interstitial shots of the landscape provide context for, and respite from, the human suffering without romanticizing nature. And Bobbitt’s exquisite cinematography never strains to manipulate darkness and light.
Ejiofor’s low-key, naturalistic acting mode is ideal for conveying Northup’s self-control and intelligence. And Fassbender avoids turning the malevolent Epps into a one-note nemesis. The performance that doesn’t seem to fit is Brad Pitt’s cameo as the abolitionist carpenter Samuel Bass. Not only does Pitt resemble an exile from reality TV’s “Amish Mafia,” Bass’s arrival at the plantation and pointed queries seem too convenient and quaint. Before predicting a day of reckoning for the nation and slaveholders, he asks Epps, “In the eyes of God what’s the difference between white and black?”
God is invoked at other key junctures. Mistress Shaw says the Lord will mete out justice to slave owners someday. And Patsey tells Solomon God will forgive him if he helps her kill herself. When he refuses, she scoffs at the idea that God could be among them in such a woeful place. For his part, Solomon does not spend time mulling theology. He puts his hope in himself and the law. Deliverance in this world is possible if he can prove his rightful legal status. Still, his focus and stoicism do not render him immune to Christianity’s promise. At his lowest ebb, he joins in singing a spiritual, seemingly for the first time. Perhaps his effort not to succumb to self-pity, despair or anger needs the boost of a communal lament.
At the film’s muted conclusion, Solomon tells his family, “I have had a difficult time.” His modesty and understatement are echoed in the movie’s measured tone. We are never asked to view his plight as worse than that of his fellow slaves who have never known freedom, and there is no emphasis on the superficial, material advantages of freedom. The qualities that enabled Solomon to endure and overcome are mirrored in McQueen’s steely artistic vision, one that resists cushioning the pain or celebrating it with voyeuristic masochism.