Steve McQueen, the black, London-born director of such artsy fare as the self-important Hunger and sex-addiction focused Shame, has taken on the topic of American Slavery with perhaps the most direct and accomplished portrayal that anyone has yet seen on the subject. Eschewing his favored embellished takes and political/social maneuverings of his previous films for a more direct and emotionally involving style, 12 Years a Slave is filled with the kinds of moments that are essential to tell this story, but is without the sort of Hollywood colloquialisms, overt sentimentalization and politically correct quagmire that we might expect were this film coming from a more American/Hollywood minded perspective. Thus, the film feels remarkably clearheaded. Maybe for too long, Hollywood has been too afraid of hurting certain people's feelings by making a film about slavery. Or maybe the wounds are still too fresh. That is except for certain "safe" portrayals like Tarantino's hollow and superficial Django Unchained. Spielberg also mostly sidestepped the issue in Amistad (basically a courtroom drama) and last year's Lincoln (a biopic of the president), as neither really went into the subject completely. Perhaps McQueen’s nationality allows an objective portrayal to come forward. 12 Years a Slave brings us face to face with one of the greatest evils in the history of humanity. Perhaps not since television's "Roots", has the subject been approached with any degree of importance, and let’s not forget….that was, amazingly, 36 years ago!
“12 Years a Slave” was a memoir written in 1853 by Solomon Northup. It concerned his personal story of how he was taken from his life in Saratoga Springs, NY. He had a wife and two children when he was kidnapped while traveling in Washington D.C. and taken as a prisoner and traded on the slave market, shipping him down to a plantation in Louisiana, where he began 12 years enslaved to a couple of masters, all the while attempting to find a way to notify his family up north. The film bases the story upon this memoir and stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a gut-wrenching performance as Northup, who eventually has his name changed to Platt by force. Throughout the film, he is under servitude to two masters, played by Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford, and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps. Under Ford, Northup is exposed to the vengeful treatment of John Tibeats (played with a bit too much crazed bravado by Paul Dano), a carpenter on the plantation. In a scene almost unbearable to watch, Northup is nearly hung by Tibeats and his cronies, but ends up dangling by his neck, standing on his tiptoes in the mud all day, while Northup's fellow slaves look on, unable to help him. After this incident, Ford sells Northup to Epps, an extremely racist and violent man, prone to verbal, physical, and sexual abuse upon his slaves. Of particular note, his attentions paid to a slave named Patsey (an amazing Lupita Nyong’o) bring the ire of Epps’s cruel and vengeful wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). All the while, Northup tries to maintain secrecy of his education and ability to read and write, biding his time until he can find a way out of this bondage if possible. That is until he meets an honest and kind man named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who helps him send a letter home, providing an impetus for his return to freedom.
Because the film focuses on such a personal story, rather than on such a large swath of slavery, it makes the film so much more streamlined and taut than a longer or more broad film might be. This focus on Northup and his particular predicament is not necessarily common to the slave experience, though. His story of being enslaved as a freeman is not typical, yet it’s alarming and jarringly shocking in ways we may not be used to, somehow taking a type of story we think we know everything about, and unveiling a new degree of moral corruption and human torment through that. Ejiofor gives the performance of the year as Northup, where he emotes even while he must often refrain. It’s a balancing act that is best seen in a few of the film's most memorable moments. One is the scene where Patsey is begging Northup to kill her to put her out of her misery. Much of the dialogue in this scene and in the film in general actually feels a bit formal and almost pre-determined. Yet in a way, this effect comes across as a most tragic kind of poetry reading. The second is the moment where Epps confronts Northup with having asked a white man to deliver a letter for him. They stare each other down in the dark, in the candlelight like two men waiting for the other to crack. Finally, in a penultimate kind of scene, Northup breaks down and reveals his story on the plantation to Bass, and Northup is shocked to tears that he's actually telling the story to someone.