As the camera glides discreetly among rows of slaves picking cotton beneath a deceptively clear blue sky, the sound all but drops except for – crack! – the deafening sound of an overseer’s whip splintering the air. The effect is startling, almost nauseating in its simplicity. And like the silencing of natural sound to accentuate that unnatural and brutal auditory attack, Steve McQueen’s masterful “12 Years a Slave” strips away the fabric of humanity to reveal an unnatural and grotesquely frightening core.
There are many films depicting the horrors of slavery, but nothing as raw or bleak as this. Whether it’s slavery or the Holocaust, portraying on film the barbaric atrocities that humans inflict upon each other has been popular in cinema for a century. But with “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen leaps bounds over the realism of those other films. The starkness and the realism of “12 Years” even makes films like Steven Spielberg’s exemplary Holocaust drama “Schindler’s List” seem “Hollywood” in comparison.
“12 Years a Slave” is based on the book of the same name by Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free black man from Saratoga, New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery. For 12 years, Northup endures hell as he transfers from plantation to plantation. With no hope of ever returning to his family, Solomon tries his hardest to hold on to the only thing he has left: his humanity.
McQueen digs his knife in early, giving a taste of some of the luxuries of being free in the north before stripping them when Solomon is kidnapped. It’s that reversal of fortune that sets this story apart from most others. While many stories about freed slaves begin with men or women having nothing and then rising to their freedom, “12 Years a Slave” is the opposite, making the tragedy feel exponentially worse.
The harshest atrocity in “12 Years a Slave” isn’t the whipping, or the rape or even the hangings, but the absolute absence of hope. McQueen never lets this story become typical Hollywood fare by planting a false sense of hope. In reality, there was none and Solomon knew it. Without hope there were only two options: die or bide the time in that stifling miserable hell. And this is all effortlessly shown in Ejiofor’s sad, defeated eyes in his truly marvelous and understated performance. Ejiofor makes Solomon’s odyssey feel like our own.
The conservative camera work by Sean Bobbitt adds stark realism. Most shots linger on the action, letting the audience view it as if through a proscenium. By doing this, Bobbitt and McQueen force the audience to see the full scope of the horror whether you want to or not.
For instance, quite possibly the most unsettling scene in the film has Solomon hanging from a tree. His feet just barely touching the ground, he is able to stave off suffocation by standing on his toes. McQueen sets his camera down, never moving and never cutting as we, the audience, watch as Ejiofor suffers this near-death experience. Worse – so much worse – is that the other plantation slaves resume their business in the background, all too afraid to lend a helping hand. This may only last 90 seconds but feels like an eternity and is just one burning visual that McQueen’s film will etch in your brain.
It is without question that McQueen has made the rawest film of the year and this could very well win Best Picture and Director come Oscar time. But awards consideration aside, this film might just be too raw for many people to make it through.
The supporting cast features incredible performances aplenty by Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Afre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and more. Fassbender is especially noteworthy as the repugnant plantation owner Epps, a creature so unbelievably vile and drunk with evil. This is undeniably his best performance yet. Joining him as his wife is Sarah Paulson, whose jealous cruelty is senseless and despicable. Her role could be easily be mistaken for kitschy evil, but Paulson reins in the passionately cruel Mistress Epps, making her frightening and unpredictable.
With her feature film debut, Lupita Nyong'o’s breakout performance is one of the film’s highlights. She is stunning as Patsey, an emotionally broken woman who becomes the target of Epps’ brutal and repulsive lust. While Solomon generally remains calm or reserved under the direst of circumstances, Patsey is audibly and physically representative of the culmination of atrocities inflicted on these men and women. It’s a beautiful but incredibly sad performance of a young woman denied death in the face of a fate far worse.
McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is rough viewing for sure, but tremendously impressive in its coarse depiction of humanity lost. From the performances, to McQueen’s directing to John Ridley’s emotional script, “12 Years” is a tour de force, just one of the most unpleasant ones you will ever see.
Fox Searchlight Pictures. MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 2 hours and 13 minutes.