In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York with his family, agrees to travel to Washington D.C. at the behest of two traveling carnival performers to lend his musical talents to their show for a few nights. The promise of a hefty payday is too much to resist, and as he sits in a restaurant with his benefactors slowly getting drunk, I was overcome with a sense of foreboding. When Solomon awakens in chains it is such a jarring, horrible scene. It is a tribute to director Steve McQueen that even though the film is called 12 Years a Slave and we know what is coming, his enslavement still comes as a shock.
He ends up deep in the antebellum South on the plantation of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is relatively good to his slaves by the standards of the time. (I refuse to call him the “good slave owner.”) Solomon ingratiates himself with Ford but earns the ire of Tibeats the overseer, played with greasy sadism by Paul Dano. Solomon is eventually sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a plantation owner who is as cruel and brutal as Ford was kind. Solomon attempts to survive the mad whims of his new owner, all the while maintaining a hope that he may yet escape.
The film is unflinching in its portrait of slavery, and is reminiscent of Schindler’s List in the way it portrays the banality of evil. Paul Giamatti personifies this as a slave broker with the ironic name of Freeman, whose efficient approach to business would be less disturbing if he were dealing in cattle instead of people. Fassbender’s plantation owner is as evil as Amon Goeth, viewing his slaves as subhuman while indulging his carnal urges by raping slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). She suffers unspeakably at the hands of both Epps and his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson), whose casual cruelty is absolutely horrifying.
The cinematography by Sean Bobbitt is beautiful but never showy, and Hans Zimmer delivers his most subtle work in years, underscoring the action rather than indulging in his trademark themes. The film is an actors’ showcase. Ejiofor has been doing great work for years, and this serves as a breakout role that should earn him both critical and popular acclaim. Fassbender does the best work of his career as Epps, creating a character both complex and also senselessly evil. No doubt Fassbender and Ejiofor will be nominated for Oscars, as well as newcomer Nyong’o for her work as Patsey.
12 Years a Slave is a difficult, painful experience. I recommend it because it is an amazing film, brilliantly acted, and beautifully shot. It shows, in wrenching detail, the brutality of slavery and the utter lack of humanity of those who perpetrated this crime against their fellow human beings. There is some catharsis at the end, but it is cold comfort knowing that generations suffered as Solomon did. I’m glad I saw the movie, but I have no desire to ever see it again.