12 Years a Slave is a serious movie. It manipulates, but not cheaply. It tells a story of survival and horrendous endurance, and does not find anything remotely ennobling or inspirational in it. A man spends a dozen years in hell for no sane reason. That he began life and spent much of his adulthood as a free man only heightens his anguish. The movie is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York, who was drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen and scripter John Ridley offer the audience no comforting way to get our heads around the situation, its outcome (the men who kidnapped Northup ultimately got away with it), or the fact that millions of other human beings in slavery had never known freedom and never would.
McQueen, until now best known for his art-house studies Hunger (about Irish hunger striker Bobby Sands) and Shame (about a sex addict), lends 12 Years a Slave some dabs of dreamlike imagery — red sunlight peeking through the gnarled tree branches of New Orleans; a steamboat’s paddle wheel gnashing away at the river. But for the most part he approaches the narrative straight on and sober, with long, long takes bearing the weight of cruelty. At one point, Northup hangs from a tree by his neck, his feet just barely touching the muddy ground, while the other slaves go about their business elsewhere in the frame. We stare at Northup hanging there for what feels like hours, but is probably just a couple of minutes of screen time.
The film’s only real concession to conventional heart-tugging is Hans Zimmer’s score, at times a bit too insistent or ominous. 12 Years a Slave has its share of brutality, but I never felt a sadistic impulse behind it on the filmmakers’ part, the way I sometimes feel it from Schindler’s List. The violence here is just sad and repulsive, and even when Northup loses his even keel and lashes out at a contemptible overseer (Paul Dano), the sequence isn’t rhythmed to achieve a “yeah, go get him!” effect — we are, again, saddened, this time because the intelligent and gentle Northup has been provoked to act against his nature.
I’m not sure acting will get any finer this season than the scenes between rancid plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s suffering avatar in his previous films) and despairing slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps is sexually obsessed with Patsey, who picks more cotton than anyone on the plantation; her reward is rape, and assorted abuse not only from Epps but from his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Fassbender, like Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List, goes beyond boilerplate evil into a deeply twisted humanity, while Nyong’o — in her feature-film debut — offers a devastating portrait of exhausted horror and misery. Patsey’s story violently refutes any easy sustenance we could derive from Northup’s. He was born in freedom and will eventually return to it; she wasn’t, and won’t.
As for Chiwetel Ejiofor, this is the major leading role he has deserved for some time, and he more than earns it, shivering in silent, profound disgust at Northup’s situation and surroundings, a man reduced to machinery. What impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave is its unstressed subtext dealing with the financial apparatus of slavery. Paul Giamatti (“My sentimentality extends the length of a coin”) shows up as a slave trader who displays his human wares as nonchalantly as a car salesman taking a buyer on a tour of his dealership floor. Both slaveowners we meet in the movie — the first is the largely less sadistic William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) — have their money problems, suggesting that the god that the slaves desperately pray and sing to is having his little joke on mortals who set themselves up as God. Caterpillars munching on cotton in Epps’ field are described as a “plague,” which, coming from a man like Epps who professes to know his Bible, is an ironic metaphor. Near the end, Brad Pitt turns up as an itinerant carpenter who implies that slavery runs against the very order of the universe, echoing the earlier words of a favored house mistress (Alfre Woodard). Eventually the apparatus will — must — come crashing down. Or will it? According to the Global Slavery Index, there are 29.8 million people in slavery worldwide today. The United States accounts for nearly 60,000 of those.