12 Years a Slave opens in slavery and ends in freedom. The film, balancing traditional film techniques of fiashbacks and singular narrative focus amidst its technical use of wide shots, dissolves, and long takes, tells the grandest, bravest, and boldest story of slavery I’ve ever seen on screen, a testament to humanity and freedom in an inherently American landscape. The inhumane nature of much of the film, and the proper three-dimensionality that every single character is given, shows the capability of this work as an enduring feature. McQueen’s direction, working in relation to Zimmer’s brutally affecting score, Bobbitt’s breathtaking cinematography, Ridley’s triumphantly built screenplay (based on the novel by Northup himself), and every other technical component of this film, makes this a realized, brutal depiction of the antebellum South, in a time when humans owned one another as property.
The film centers on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, a name that everyone should learn to pronounce; you’ll be hearing it a lot come awards season), a free man in Saratoga, New York in the 1840s who lives happily with his family. One day, he meets with Brown and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam), men who work for a circus and want to bring him on as a fiddle player; he’s an expert, enjoying his career, but likes the idea of heading off for a few weeks while his wife does the same with his children. He’s tricked by these men, though, drugged and taken away to a plantation where he is ultimately bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind-hearted slaveowner who works with Tibeats (Paul Dano), a madman who manipulates the slaves to enable himself to hurt them. When an incident arises with Solomon, who defends himself against an unjust attack, Ford must sell him away for his own protection; this leads him to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a “nigger breaker.”
Observational in manner and varying in degrees of technical difficulty, McQueen’s direction is confident, assured, and deliberately paced. Where he allows for long takes, like an increasingly impressive scene that navigates the small area in which the slaves are sold, he also composes shots that allow for dense action. One of the film’s many horrifying moments emerges when Tibeats attempts to hang Solomon; as another man finds out, and scares them off, Solomon is left dangling there with his feet barely touching the mud. He plays a tiptoe game of life-and-death, with the man who could have cut him down running to get Ford. While it becomes such an intensely unstable scene, with Solomon dangling in the middle of a wide-lensed shot with no noise in the background, the slaves emerge from their quarters in the distance and get to work. They do not interfere, knowing what will happen if they do. The way in which these men and women have been broken, torn apart from their families or beaten so much that they forget who they are, is horrifying.
Ejiofor’s performance at the film’s center is triumphant in force and subtlety, carrying a calm demeanor through the film’s beginning until he is devastated by its conclusion. This is a performance that lives within film, one that has become solidified for its permanence in fragility and substance. The film allows for his regality to deteriorate over time, losing pieces of clothing that connected him with home; one brilliant scene shows his brutal whipping at the hands of a man who takes away his freedom, telling him that he is a slave and nothing more. As the camera holds on Ejiofor’s face in the forefront, the savagery of the act becomes heightened; McQueen does not even show the marks on his back, only alluding to their effect when Solomon takes off his old shirt and it is covered in blood. There’s a tenderness that is unlike anything I have seen within Ejiofor’s performance; at the film’s conclusion, as Solomon is reunited with his family, I was reduced to tears primarily because of that central performance.
Fassbender’s Epps is maniacal and cold, a remorseless individual that clearly loves Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), yet never acknowledges it. His performance is extraordinarily complex and rich with detail, and Nyong’o is fantastic in her first performance. The supporting cast all-around is magnificent, particularly within the performances of Dano and Paulson. What becomes so remarkable about the film’s effectiveness does not simply stem from its ability to orchestrate emotion out of a distant, almost unrecognizable time in American history, but that it allows for the simple tale of family and human emotion at its center to tie together the movie’s thematic values and storytelling. This is a tale of hardship and bitter inhumanity, yet the simple humanity of Solomon, a free-man-turned-slave, speaks to the film’s universality. Once there was a time when humanity could not recognize itself. By the film’s conclusion, I left knowing that this was a film of deep anguish and unforgettable suffering. It’s a masterpiece, emotionally draining, meticulously directed, and undeniably brilliant.
Grade: ★★★★★ (out of 5)