“12 Years a Slave,” Reviewed: Chains and the Man.


Steve McQueen’s raw, illuminating 12 Years a Slave (R — violence, language, sexuality) delivers an emotional wallop like a tightly balled fist to the solar plexus – a punch in the gut fueled by a century-and-a-half of pent-up ferocity. If slavery is our country’s great historical shame, then we finally have our Schindler’s List: A narrative film that eloquently depicts a grotesque reality with more power and immediacy than any history book we read in school. Is it any wonder it took a British director to hold this mirror up to our face?

A true story based on its lead character’s memoir (originally written and published in 1853), 12 Years shows us the horrors of slavery through the unblinking eyes of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man who in 1841 was living happily with his wife and two kids in Saratoga, NY. His contentedness is presented as a bubble waiting to be burst. A professional violinist, Solomon is whisked away to Washington by two men with the promise of a performing gig – and promptly drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery in New Orleans. His new name is Platt, and one of the first pieces of advice he receives involves the potentially fatal consequences of arguing his true identity to his new “owners.”

Ejiofor, who first emerged on moviegoers’ radar screens with Dirty Pretty Things (2002), has spent the last decade being the best thing in a varied slate of pictures – not always good stuff. But in 12 Years he finally has a project worthy of his talent. In scene after scene filmed in agonizing close-up, Solomon’s anguish and rage is made palpable as he suffers one indignity after another, from the petty tyrannies of a young slave driver (Paul Dano) to the epic savagery of Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner whose lust for one field slave (Lupita Nyong’o) doesn’t escape the notice of his imperious wife (Sarah Paulson). But Epps saves a special vengeful rage for Solomon who, despite coming to accept the survivalist wisdom of supplication, can’t hide his intelligence, or his pride.

McQueen, a British filmmaker with only two previous features to his credit – 2008’s Hunger and 2011’s Shame, both starring Fassbender – has approached 12 Years a Slave with a stark evenness of tone that focuses our full attention on the story and its characters. There are no pauses to drink in the ironic beauty of the antebellum South, and even the gospel music “interludes” carry dual meaning – their inspirational melodies are like a sedative that Solomon refuses to use to dull his pain. (Until, heartbreakingly, he gives in.)

McQueen’s unsentimental treatment of Northrup’s plight is almost that of a documentarian: This account simply feels real, and that reality is chilling. That sense of authenticity is given even more heft by the film’s full-blooded depiction of a plantation culture in which whippings are considered a bizarre form of daily employee evaluation, and a man can be hanged from the neck for hours, still alive, while business goes on as usual in the yard around him.

The grim business of 12 Years a Slave is anchored in Ejiofor’s portrayal of a man whose faith in justice keeps him going: Solomon knows who he is, even if identity must be kept an open secret, and his will to survive is informed by a certainty that one day he’ll be free again. Even in the darkest moments of this essential film, that certitude is the compass that guides the story – like our once-errant society – toward the promise of something better.

(IMAGE: Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Films.)