"12 Years a Slave" is not a film meant to be enjoyed. Its depiction of slavery, America's greatest sin, levels a double whammy – it hits viscerally and emotionally.
Every lash of the whip sends blood and flesh into the atmosphere in a way that sends shivers up the spine. Every tear shed invokes a deeper level of despair. Every indignation the keepers of the peculiar institution casts upon its victims delivers a pang of pure anger. You'll walk away feeling like you have just spent the last two hours with the wind knocked out of you. The final resolution brings little relief or joy, but rather another type of profound sadness – that justice is often never served.
Yet "12 Years a Slave" is a film that deserves to – and must – be seen, for many reasons, but not the least of them, that it is based on a true story.
As his 1853 memoir recounted, Solomon Northup was a free black man, living in New York with his family in 1841, until he was tricked, drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. That was not a rare occurrence in pre-Civil War America. After enduring the horrors of plantation life in the South for more than a decade, he regained his freedom. That made Northup's tale exceptional.
Director Steve McQueen sets Northup's story to film in manner that is straightforward, but by no means simple. Soon after Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped, a fellow captive tells Solomon what he needs to do to survive. I don't want to survive, Solomon replies, I want to live.
The space between the two, the film shows, is wide and worth exploring. And while "12 Years a Slave" hits the touchstones of slavery turned over by history books – a mother (Adepero Oduye) torn from her children, a woman (Lupita Nyong'o) raped by her master, an old man dead on the field from exhaustion – it does so in a way that feels freshly painful. But more than that, it illustrates what it means to have one's freedom and identity taken away. Solomon is rebranded "Platt" the moment he, in shackles, steps off the slave ship. Will he succumb to this seemingly inescapable fate or will he fight to be Solomon again?
Both the slaves and the masters of "12 Years a Slave" emerge as fully formed human beings, shaped by the circumstances either perpetuated by or forced upon them. They exist on an awful spectrum created by a system that allows men to buy and sell other men as if they are property. A "good" master (Benedict Cumberbatch) can't bring himself to defend Platt from a deranged field-hand out for blood. A "bad" master (Michael Fassbender) can't bring himself to whip the beautiful cotton picker he's raping. The perpetrators of slavery were wicked, vicious and delusional. But they were also humans.
For all the cruelty of the slave owners (and there's plenty of it), it's the cruelty that the slaves must inflict on one another – just to survive – that is most disheartening. Sometimes that's being forced to whip a friend. Other times it's seeing a man about to be hung and walking in another direction. Or it's refusing a woman's pleas to kill her and put her out of her misery.
McQueen is prosaic in his retelling of Northup's story. He doesn't reach with an over-the-top style, rather letting the gritty reality of slavery do the work for him. His most effective techniques come down to where he trains the camera, focusing first on the doer of some horrible act and then shifting to its recipient. Even the scenes that lapse in violence are arresting in their degradation.
But the success of the film comes down to the performances given by its actors. A smattering of well-known, well-liked faces and names join the cast (Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson), but none are allowed to rise above the ghastly world "12 Years a Slave" portrays. It's up to Ejiofor to hold the film's moral focus. Solomon is given no major speeches, few lines that transcend. His dire condition is manifested primarily through the eloquence of Ejiofor's expressions.
Early on Solomon – once a genteel, high society, violinist– is told, "Tell no one who you really are and tell no one you can read or write." His ability to do the latter puts his life in danger. But his memory of the former is what ultimately saves him. When freedom does at long last arrive, you wonder if he will even remember who Solomon Northup once was, considering what Platt went through. But that's the difference between living and surviving.