‘12 Years a Slave’
The story of an educated man who experienced the horrors of slavery and survived to write a book about his ordeal, “12 Years a Slave” is an almost unimaginably harrowing depiction of slavery in the United States.
One that’s genuine enough in the telling to serve as a particularly shocking reminder of a time that’s still historically too close for comfort.
Fortunately, it’s also an inspiring story of a man who refused to give in to despair despite extreme physical, emotional and spiritual suffering.
English director Steve McQueen (who previously tackled the grim topics of a fatal prison hunger strike in “Hunger” and extreme sex addition in “Shame”) opens the film with a quick sketch of the remarkably happy pre-abduction life of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor in a profoundly affecting performance — another certain contender for the Best Actor Oscar). A free black man who lived in Saratoga, NY in 1841, Solomon is portrayed as a contented family man, a former engineer earning a comfortable living as a musician and enjoying a position of acceptance and respect in the community. Until the day he accepts a lucrative offer to travel to Washington, D.C. to perform with couple of white entertainers and soon finds himself shanghaied (a not-uncommon occurrence after a federal law banning the import of slaves), chained, beaten and transported to New Orleans where he is put on the market and sold.
That’s an inadequately matter-of-fact description of the initial outrages inflicted on Solomon, one that doesn’t come near to expressing the raw disbelief and anguish Ejiofor conveys as the reality of the situation becomes increasingly clear. Barring a miracle, Solomon knows he will never see his family again and that he will die a slave. Yet, he refuses to give up hope. And in the end, a near-miracle does occur.
In the meantime, “12 Years a Slave” carries on as a showcase for white actors behaving abominably, with one comparatively humane and one not-quite-credibly enlightened exception (Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, respectively). Especially Paul Giamatti as a loathsome slave trader, Paul Dano as a bullying plantation carpenter and Michael Fassbender as a sadistic, religious-maniac plantation owner. They’re all quite good at setting the hellish tone, but it’s Ejiofor, who plays his role in one key — acute torment — but with innumerable shadings of expression. It’s the genuineness of his performance that gives the film its devastating emotional impact.
The genuineness of his performance and the terrible realism with which McQueen presents the story’s nonstop cruelties. Not only the major episodes — being hanged from a tree for a day with his toes barely touching ground or forced to whip another slave almost to death — but the equally destructive daily degradations. Washing naked in a courtyard with other slaves while a well-to-do white couple observe with faint disgust. Seeing a sobbing mother being told, with a “there, there” tone by her new mistress, not to cry because her just-sold children “will soon be forgotten.”
McQueen certainly doesn’t spare the large atrocities in “12 Years a Slave,” but he also finds the devil in the details.