A man hangs from a tree. The rope around his neck strangles him. His tiptoed feet slide around on the muddy ground, they’re the only thing between him and death. The camera holds a wide shot, never cutting as other slaves slowly start their day, purposefully oblivious since aiding this man surely ends in similar punishment. A white woman emotionlessly watches the man suffocate from her balcony but she turns away to attend her children. A brave slave-woman runs up to the man to give him water but he can barely swallow as he asphyxiates. No score plays. The only sound is the man gasping for air. It’s a moment of helplessness I’ve never felt until that scene. And that’s what Steve McQueen’s astonishing 12 Years A Slave gets right in its depiction of slavery on film. Gone are the fairy tale romance of Gone With The Wind and the pulpy revenge of Django Unchained; in its place is the unflinching, unshakeable truth and this truth, a horror show of brutal physicality and nightmarish psychology, is more than enough to gut you whole. For this reason alone 12 Years A Slave is as vital as filmmaking gets.
The man is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from Saratoga Springs, New York who was tricked and sold into slavery. After a night of drinking with two men who have offered him a well-paying violinist job, Solomon wakes up in chains. He claims he is a free man but gets savagely beaten. When he claims his name is Solomon, the slave market owner (scathingly played by Paul Giamatti) smacks him and renames him Platt. From then on the world Solomon once knew is gone, and as he travels from plantation to plantation the flashbacks to his time as a family man are seen less and less, as if they are fleeting memories being ripped out of him as the insurmountable pressures try to break his spirit. And yet Solomon’s burning passion to see his family again is what keeps his will to live alive, and by taking this approach – that of a free man turned slave – screenwriter John Ridley allows this tale of slavery to transcend racial boundaries since Solomon is as free as any audience member who is watching his story. We are firmly put into Solomon’s emotional shoes and once we’re there we are just as stuck, just as shocked, just as terrified.
Solomon first encounters the kind yet cowardly William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher who grows a liking to Solomon after his violin and carpentry skills prove beneficial to the plantation. Ford’s overseer, John Tibeats (the great Paul Dano in another role of moral disgust following September’s Prisoners), is a wretched man who treats the slaves like immature buffoons. In a standout sequence, Tibeats chants an offensive slave song as if he was a cheery kindergarten teacher, and it creates a potent sound bridge to images of the slaves being exhaustibly worked. Eventually, Solomon is sold to the Epps plantation where the chains of bondage begin to show how they corrupt both the oppressed and the oppressor.
Edwin Epps, a vulnerable sadist played masterfully by McQueen regular Michael Fassbender, is a monster of a man, the type of person who beats his slaves just to prove his authority and then wakes them up in the middle of the night so they can dance for his enjoyment. He is obsessed with a young slave girl, Patsey (a breakthrough Lupita Nyong’o), and though he seems to genuinely love her he rapes her anyways. This affection has turned Epps’ wife, Mary (a tremendous Sarah Paulson), into a scorned core of jealousy and Paulson’s sneers of cold command are just as chilling as her husband’s grotesque actions. The strikingly beautiful Nyong’o, in a remarkable debut, is a heartbreaker when pleading to Solomon to end her life and an absolute showstopper when an encounter with a bar of soap leads to one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed. Here, director Steve McQueen, the bold visual installation artist that he is, films the brutal whipping of Patsey in an unrelenting long take, the camera spinning around and around from action (both Solomon and Epps take turns whipping her, their horrified expressions showing just how detrimental slavery is to all souls involved) to reaction (Nyong’o’s painful shrieks and near acceptance of death). And yes, in keeping with the film’s historical honesty, the tolls whippings take on the human body are graphically shown.
While the supporting cast is remarkable (even the tiniest role becomes crucial, such as a head mistress so expertly played by Alfre Woodard), this is undoubtedly Ejiofor’s show and he is an absolute tour-de-force. A beloved supporting actor for years, Solomon is the role Ejiofor was born to play and he is outstanding. McQueen loves holding his lead actors in long close ups, and since the director never lets us know the time progressions of Solomon’s 12 year journey, it is Ejiofor and his increasingly withered facial expressions that always show us how this once free man is now struggling to survive and hold on to hope. In a moment of quiet power, the camera lingers on Solomon for a minute before he looks right into the lens and Ejiofor’s gaze – half defeated, half still clinging to life – penetrates the screen and sears right into your heart. In his many scenes with Fassbender, Ejiofor is dynamic and he must hide Solomon’s resourceful skills (reading, writing) in order to protect his life; when Solomon must lie to Epps about the whereabouts of a letter he intends to send North, the friction between Ejiofor and Fassbender is spell-binding and leaves you short of breathe. When Solomon eventually finds his way home and is reunited with his family, all thanks to Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass (a brief Brad Pitt), Ejiofor breaks down in a moment of cathartic release that is as life affirming as anything you’ll ever see. Performances of this magnitude and intimacy, as well as those from Fassbender and Nyong’o, demand Oscar attention.
McQueen also shows his artistry with award-worthy direction. I’m not sure any working director uses framing as boldly as McQueen does in order to depict his characters’ states of mind. And his fluid long takes, be it the aforementioned whipping or a startling look inside the home of a slave auction, are impeccable. Working with his long time cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, the two show the haunting beauty of the American South, using the landscape in a Malick-ian way as they film willow trees whose depressed leaves sag as if they were being lynched. Hans Zimmer’s score, a combination of his emotionally stirring work from Inception and the menacing oddities of a Johnny Greenwood soundtrack, is highly affective as well. There’s not much else I can say about 12 Years A Slave that hasn’t been said already. After premiering at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, the movie has earned a deafening level of critical praise and should it win all the Oscars come March, well, so be it. This is as impactful as a movie we’ll ever get, a wake up call to the atrocities of our human history and a reminder of how strong and resilient the human spirit can be. 12 Years A Slave is one of the year’s best pictures. You’ll never forget it.
Review by Zack Sharf