12 Years a Slave conflicted me greatly before I ultimately mustered the mental fortitude to buy a ticket. Strength of content aside, I knew the film would be a difficult watch probably requiring ample Kleenex. Based on the biography of the same name, the film tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Salt), a free Black man from New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. Director Steve McQueen (Shame) expertly crafts a horrific glimpse into a very ugly aspect of our shared American history. The graphic depictions of abject cruelty rocked me to the core, but the film is undoubtedly an amazing piece of work.
When the movie begins, we see Solomon as a slave already. Through flashbacks we learn that he was happily married with two children and that he owned his own home. He maneuvered through his environment with independence and comfort, which must’ve been a rarity for the day. A gifted violinist, Solomon often played his fiddle for White audiences at parties and other small events. His talents drew the attention of two transient musicians who claimed to be seeking an addition to their circus show. They convince Solomon to make a short trip to Washington to discuss the matter further. After dining with the pair and having a few glasses of wine, Solomon awakes a short time later to find himself shackled and chained. Overwhelmed with horror and disbelief, Solomon screams out for help, to no avail. He has been sold to a slave trader, and a frightening new reality is revealed. His life as Solomon Northup is over; he is now a fugitive slave named Platt and any reference to his former life will be met with swift and brutal consequences.
As a viewer, my sensibilities were assaulted throughout the course of the film. The indignities Solomon suffered after being sold into slavery were unfathomable. Any notions of modesty or basic human pride were stripped immediately, and I’ve never witnessed such a graphic depiction of the evils of the institution. It was difficult to watch humans treated as property or animals, and I had to avert my eyes several times. Children ripped from their mother’s arms, physical torture, psychological degradation and verbal humiliation were a daily way of life. Solomon in particular must have been decimated psychologically, having tasted freedom and knowing nothing of the perils of subjugation.
The film is sweeping, covering Solomon’s life as he is sold from a slave trader to a relatively benevolent plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, Star Trek Into Darkness), and ultimately as he ends up in the hands of a slave master named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus). Epps was a man so evil that I imagine only Lucifer himself could have a soul any blacker. Fassbender was a monster, literally and figuratively. His cruelty is particularly highlighted in his treatment of Patsey, a striking young slave woman who has unfortunately garnered his sick affections. She is a thing to be possessed, perversely favored yet singularly tortured. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o marks her silver screen debut in the role, and her performance was a revelation.
12 Years a Slave is an overwhelming film. I was overwhelmed watching it, and it is nearly impossible to dissect or encapsulate in a small blurb. Should you see it? Well, it’s an outstanding piece of cinema, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Chiwetel Ejiofor gave the performance of a lifetime. It was wrought with emotion and I believe that the actor laid himself bare, displaying astounding cinematic vulnerability. The psychological transformation he brought to life was mind-blowing. When we stand around the water cooler talking about movies and the actors “making noise” right now, his name needs to come up more frequently than it does. This was a tour de force performance. Director Steve McQueen has demonstrated an ability to elicit raw, soul-baring performances from his lead actors. He did it in Shame and he’s done it again. Aided by stark, austere cinematography and a visceral score, he brought the horrors of slavery to life in a manner heretofore unseen. Grade: A.
This article first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.