At this point, 12 Years a Slave has only its own publicity to conquer. Moviegoers may approach director Steve McQueen’s patient, clear-eyed and altogether extraordinary adaptation of the 1853 slave narrative with preconditioned awe and misleading expectations of classy Hollywood melodrama.
But this is different. It is smaller in size and deeper, more complicated in its reach. It is its own classically accomplished achievement. There are a few drawbacks but a hundred more rewards to be found here in McQueen’s finest feature, preceded by Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011).
McQueen’s images have always had a self-conscious side; in his earlier pictures, the compositions had a way of turning the storytelling into picture-framing. Not here. While this is very much a McQueen picture, the historical urgency and staggering injustice of the events keep McQueen honest in his approach.
Solomon Northup’s odyssey took the freeborn man of color from Saratoga, New York, to pre-Civil War Louisiana. Already we’re going in the opposite direction of most cinematic slave accounts. To say (rightly) that 12 Years a Slave is the best so far says too little. Let’s just say a film this good, and this quietly distinctive in its style, is always welcome.
In 1841, the middle-class Northup, married with young children, was hired as a violinist for a job in Washington, D.C., while his wife, a cook and a domestic, was away on temporary employment. In Washington, Northup was drugged, kidnapped, chained and sold, then transported to Louisiana. Thus began a life of survival as a Northerner who could not reveal his education or literacy without risking all.
The events of the film are stripped down to Northup’s experiences on two plantations. The first belonged to a relatively kindly slave owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch; the second, which accounted for nearly a decade of Northup’s enslavement, was ruled by a raging drunk, described by Northup in his memoir as a sadistic creature “distinguished for his faculty of subduing the spirit of the slave.”
McQueen has an actor of exceptional, complicated spirit at the center of 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor. With his skillfully sustained long shots, often revealing a half-dozen grievous facets of the plantation life in a single image, McQueen ensures our rapt attention without resorting to cliché.
On the Epps plantation, the psychosis of the “peculiar institution” reaches dizzying heights. Northup befriends Patsey, who has the miserable distinction of being the sexual chattel of the master. A remarkable newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o, plays Patsey; Michael Fassbender casts a formidable shadow as Edwin Epps, whose wife (a steely Sarah Paulson) can barely process the indignity of being sidelined in her husband’s affections by a piece of property.
Throughout the picture, Ejiofor’s character is both participant and observer in his own nightmare. There are so many striking moments. After turning on a particularly venal workman (played by Paul Dano), Northup survives a lynching, barely. For an excruciating length of time we see Northup dangling from the rope while stretching his toes in order to reach the ground. No music. No false dramatics. The sound of the cicadas is background enough. (Elsewhere, the typically bombastic composer Hans Zimmer contributes one of his least intrusive scores.) Another inspired long take (probably the best thing McQueen has ever staged on film) features Paul Giamatti as a slave trader offering his fresh supplies for display. It’s a whirligig of motion and action, all of it appalling and appallingly matter-of-fact.
A few of the casting strokes (Brad Pitt and Dano especially) have a way of taking you out of the film, momentarily. But the scenes of real impact, and there are dozens, make hash of these small issues, such as Patsey’s plea to Northup to help end her life. She has suffered too much, yet Northup cannot understand her fatalism. “How can you fall into such despair?” he asks. “How can you not know?” comes the reply.
In that scene, as with so much of this supple achievement, 12 Years a Slave reminds us: Behind one person’s story, there are others, whose stories demand equal time and films of their own.
12 Years a Slave (R) ★★★★☆