(by Dustin Putman
"12 Years a Slave" tells of an appalling stain in American history, and does so with such an unflinching absence of compromise that many viewers will likely have a hard time sitting through it. Watching it is necessary, though, and hugely rewarding. The film's story, based on the 1853 autobiography by Solomon Northup, is one that needs to be told, and director Steve McQueen (2011's "Shame") more than proves his worth as the one to tell it. His and screenwriter John Ridley's (2012's "Red Tails") raw-to-the-bone depiction of one man's hellish dozen-year experience as a slave in the pre-Civil War era stands as telling counterpoint to Lee Daniels' recent "The Butler," a film that covered some of the same themes from a later time period, but did so with artificiality, casting gimmicks and an antiseptically sleek bow on top. "12 Years a Slave" has no bow and only a minor release from the cruel, unjustified experiences on display. That came much later—and much too late. Article continues below
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a learned, well-off free man with a beloved wife and family who is hired by professional illusionists Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam) to travel with them to Washington, DC, under the auspice of being their side entertainment and resident violin player. It is all a ruse, however, the two of them luring Northup into the lair of kidnappers who alter the truth of his past in order to sell him into slavery. Transported to work at the New Orleans mansion of Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the New York-born Northup is forced into the false identity of Georgia runaway "Platt," his survival depending on the uneducated, illiterate persona he must give into. What follows is a harrowingly discordant first-person account of his experiences as a dehumanized piece of property in an execrable situation he has no way of escaping, his ordeal heightening all the more when he is sold to the coldly controlling Master Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his ruthless wife (Sarah Paulson).
More awful than anything a conventional horror movie could possibly devise—and, come to think of it, there are subjective parallels with 2006's "Hostel," right down to the purchasing of human beings for the ultimate purposes of domination and torture—"12 Years a Slave" might be one of the premier cinematic works about the stomach-churning hell of race-based captivity and enslavement. Free of the offbeat artistic license which Quentin Tarantino brought to 2012's superbly drawn (if intentionally pulpy) "Django Unchained," the film spellbinds with its rawness and purity of vision. Aided by sterling tech credits that include Hans Zimmer's (2013's "The Lone Ranger") bold, chilling, foghorn-laden music score, Sean Bobbitt's (2013's "The Place Beyond the Pines") gritty, gloriously filmic cinematography, and David Stein's (2010's "Black Swan") authentically detailed art direction, McQueen brings a distinct menace to his tone and editing, at once eerily laid-back and bursting with intensely watchable immediacy. In sequences of immense force, from slave driver Tibeats' (Paul Dano) despicably hateful slave-song taunts over a montage of manual labor and grossly hypocritical churchgoing, to the unblinkingly portrayed abuse that befalls not only Northup, but also the hard-working, broken Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), clinging to whatever dignity she can hold onto, dread and shame permeate the frames.
A steadily employed, always enthralling character actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor (2009's "2012") should finally receive his full due in the breakthrough role of Solomon Northup, onscreen and in focus during every minute. It is through Northup's eyes that the narrative unfolds, supporting players such as Tibeats, Ford and a grieving black woman separated from her children named Eliza (Adepero Aduye) moving in and out of the story, and in and out of Northup's life, with the lack of fanfare that often marks one's day-to-day reality. Ejiofor's performance is courageous, layered and wise, refusing to play the part as victim despite relentless victimization.
As Patsey, newcomer Lupita Nyong'o is a shattering presence, her pleas to be allowed to keep a bar of soap with which to clean herself leading into one of the picture's most haunting moments. As Northup's disparate slave owners, Benedict Cumberbatch (2013's "Star Trek Into Darkness") exquisitely plays Ford as a heavy-hearted product of his generation, while Michael Fassbender (2012's "Prometheus") and Sarah Paulson (2011's "Martha Marcy May Marlene") are exceedingly convincing as spiteful, cowardly monsters, the former making it very clear to his wife that she would lose out if he had to make a choice between her and his slaves. When Northup suggests that how Epps is treating Patsey is a sin, his reply stands as a spurious window into his skewed mind's logic: "A man does how he pleases with his property." Brad Pitt (2013's "World War Z"), also a producer, shows up in the third act and is excellent as Bass, the story's only legitimately virtuous white character. A Canadian laborer who works alongside Northup and sees the inhumane wrongness of slavery and prejudice, Bass gives a voice to a specific kind of free-thinker who paved the way for the racial equality that would be achieved well over a century later.
"12 Years a Slave" is unsettling to say the least, a historical biopic free of the sentimentalism with which this genre is frequently guilty. As remarkable as most of it is, both as a whole and in segments of dramatically penetrating ferocity, it would be interesting to hear from director Steve McQueen about whether or not there was a lot of footage edited from the final theatrical edit. The very title establishes that Northup was enslaved for twelve years, but the way the story is told through seasons where he is tasked with work in cotton fields, and later at Judge Turner's (Bryan Batt) cane field, it doesn't seem longer than one or two. A few additional scenes of notable time passage would have corrected this issue and rounded off its rougher edges, but this is a relatively minor observation when stacked next to all that "12 Years a Slave" gets right. Even as one desires to shield him or herself from the agonizing situations and imagery McQueen astutely dramatizes, the film is so gripping that looking away is almost an impossibility. The results aren't just supremely fine, but an example of important moviemaking transcending art as entertainment.