“12 Years a Slave” is a punishing but essential movie about the power of the individual to persevere in soul-crushing circumstances. It’s also the most compelling, well-wrought and well-acted filmed depiction of American slavery I’ve ever seen. Director Steve McQueen dares viewers to look away at every turn, with an unstinting eye for the torments inflicted on the film’s characters, and at the way the sadism built into slavery dehumanizes both its victims and its perpetrators.
The system of slavery doesn’t exactly lend itself to the structure of a Hollywood film. Slaves are born or kidnapped into a system designed to extract their labor and discard them. Movies about slavery, much like the slave narratives used by abolitionists to fire up anti-slavery sentiments, rely on anomalous stories that don’t fit neatly into a predetermined pattern. “12 Years a Slave” is based on the published reminiscences of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a real-life fiddle player and freeman with a solid middle class life in upstate New York who was unlawfully abducted into slavery under the guise of an offer of employment with a traveling circus.
Though the title indicates that the movie spans a fixed period, the passage of time in the movie is unnervingly choppy. The movie traverses back and forward in time, sometimes in Solomon’s memory, sometimes as a structural device, to trace Solomon’s descent into the hell of slavery. Yet the movie does not dwell on the cumulative weight of those twelve years. Because Solomon never quite adapts to slave life, he is continually horror-struck by the depths of its depravity. At the same time, he never quite loses his belief in the essential goodness of his fellow man — and at several points this enduring trust puts his life in danger.
After being taken south, Solomon is sold at a New Orleans market to a plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who thinks of himself as a relatively liberal-minded plantation owner because he largely eschews the whip and because he is able to wince slightly at the spectacle of a mother being separated from her children, and her young daughter being sold into a life of prostitution. After a violent encounter with a deranged overseer, he’s sold to a small cotton plantation where the economic value of slaves is secondary to their worth as actors in a theater of cruelty masterminded by mercurial owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Scenes of impossible cruelty follow one after the other, but the film never descends to the level of a gothic curiosity. This is mostly due to the very high level of acting. Mr. Ejiofor brings vitality and immediacy to scenes that could have been cliched or ridiculous. He conveys a sense of visceral shock when Solomon wakes up in chains, and begins to piece together his new circumstances. Lupita Nyong’o delivers a remarkably nuanced performance as Patsey, a slave who endures both the repeated rape by her master, and beatings at the hands of his jealous wife. Mr. Fassbender is absorbing and repellant as a tyrannical man-child who tortures his slaves at the expense of their use to him as labor. Paul Dano is white-hot with anger and resentment as the overseer Tibeats.
By design, “12 Years a Slave” demands a lot from the viewer. But lurking behind the raw power of the cruelty is a refined use of images to convey larger the larger themes that the film does not dwell on, but lurk in the background. A scene that uses the unfinished Capitol Building as a backdrop, a shot of the Port of New Orleans, made prosperous by slavery, and the image of a piece of paper containing words that Solomon might use to gain his freedom burning into embers all speak to the larger evil that is encapsulated by Solomon’s story.