In director Steve McQueen’s thematically brutal yet beautifully composed film 12 Years a Slave, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an astonishing performance as Solomon Northup, a black musician whose trusting nature leads to the ultimate betrayal when he goes from a free man to a slave. That both director and actor are British and black isn’t an anomaly but rather an obtuse argument that perhaps American filmmakers are too close to the story of slavery in this country to do it justice.
Northup was a married father of two living as a free man in Saratoga, N.Y. in 1841. (It’s believed that about 10 percent of American blacks at that time were, in fact, free to live among everyone else in the North.) His mastery of the violin is noticed by two white promoters who entice him to Washington D.C. to join their other performers in what sounds like a mix between a musical revue and a circus. That stint never comes to fruition and, after a night of hard drinking in a restaurant with a mixed group of patrons, he wakes up in a cell with chains on his ankles and then on a boat to Louisiana, his freedom just a sharp memory.
Once on land, Solomon and a host of other men, women and children are at mercy of a merciless slave trader (Paul Giamatti), whose style of salesmanship is to pose them in different rooms of a big house like breathing mannequins or livestock. They’ve lost their humanity and become nothing more than merchandise. After a wrenching scene where a young mother and her two children are sold to three different men, Solomon winds up working at the estate of a seemingly kind man, Ford, (Benedict Cumberbatch) who eventually must pay off a debt to a plantation owner named Epps (Michael Fassbender), a monster who is conflicted over his affection for a young female slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o).
The bulk of the film unfolds on the Epps plantation, where several slaves work in and on the stately house, the animal pens and the blisteringly hot cotton fields. Whenever they’re perceived to be disrespectful or suspicious (or in the case of Epps’s assessment of Solomon, more intelligent than he needs to be), the punishment is meted out with whips, ropes and boards. The scenes are excruciating to watch and McQueen has said his intent was to avoid having the myth disguise the pain.
What elevates the film from the accomplished to the extraordinary – to art, if you will – is the way in which McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt let scenes and shots stay on screen much longer than viewers may be comfortable with. The camera often lingers on Ejiofor’s face while his thoughts race, his feelings rumble, and his pride perseveres, accompanied by the persistent buzz of cicadas. It’s a movie that’s as elegant as it is horrific.
12 Years a Slave | Dir. Steve McQueen | 134 minutes | Playing at many theaters in the metro