The short review: Fearlessly tackling one of the ugliest chapters in American history, director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a modern day masterpiece and, frankly, required viewing.
The short review: Plain and simple, 12 Years A Slave is a modern day masterpiece. It may seem odd that it took a Brit to deliver the quintessential story of American slavery, but some nits weren’t meant to be picked, especially when the result is as breathtaking as 12 Years A Slave. In a script co-written by director Steve McQueen and John Ridley, partially based on Solomon Northrup’s titular memoir, the film examines its subject matter with an unflinching gaze, often to the point of inducing physical discomfort in the viewer. Tremendous performances from Chiewetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender and a stellar supporting cast anchor a gripping, brutal and brutally honest tale that will be held up as an essential piece of modern cinema.
Adapted from Northrup’s 1853 autobiography, the film centers on Solomon Northrup (Chiewetel Ejiofor), a free man, devoted husband, and talented violinist living in Saratoga, New York with his family until he was tricked by two white men into visiting Washington, DC under the auspices of performing in their traveling circus. After being plied with an extravagant meal and copious amounts of alcohol by his cultured companions, he awakens, shackled, in a dark, dank cell with his freeman papers nowhere to be found. Savagely beaten by his captors, Northrup is smuggled out of town along with several other prisoners by boat and sold at auction, where he is given the name “Platt” and sent to toil on a series of plantations in Louisiana. An educated man who was accepted and celebrated by his peers up North, black and white alike, Northrup provides the unique, staggering perspective of one who has experienced the horrors of institutionalized slavery from both within and outside the system.
One of the film’s most harrowing moments comes after Northrup, played with an fierce intellect and imposing physical presence by Ejiofor, finds himself at odds with a bullying overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano). An argument between the two leads to a physical confrontation in which Northrup wrests the whip from Tibeats’ grasp and savages him with it like Tibeats has done to so many others. A crumpled, broken ball of snot and rage, Tibeats scampers off, only to return with some good ol’ boys, stringing Northrup up from a tree and preparing to lynch him. The plantation’s overseer intervenes before it’s too late, but leaves Northrup hanging from the tree, standing on his tiptoes, feet slipping in the mud, and the sounds of his choked, strangled breath mixing with the bucolic soundscapes of the plantation. The juxtaposition of children playing and birds chirping with Solomon’s strained breathing and exhausted attempts at standing are an awful sight to behold, and McQueen does not cut away as excruciating minutes pass by for the audience, which, in truth, were hours for Northrup.
As in previous works like Shame and Hunger, McQueen’s camera lingers on moments of intense physical and emotional pain, forcing the viewer to bear witness to shame, humilation, and violence in moments that can often be hard to watch, but important to understand. Adding to this inability to look away are Sean Bobbitt’s breathtaking cinematography and Hans Zimmer’s unsettling, thundering score, which ebbs and flows like a swarm of locusts descending on a field, creating a palpably intense, visually and aurally stunning atmosphere that immerses the viewer. It is to the credit of the filmmakers and the cast alike that they can pull us in so deeply to what is so inherently difficult to watch.
Make no mistake, there is catharsis to be had – Northrup eventually has a blissful reunion with his family – but Solomon’s ordeal was so harrowing and so great that no resolution could really begin to undo the terrors that preceded it. This is a pitiless, unflinching look at a vast, institutionalized horror that is clear-eyed in its vision, complicated in its morals, and singular in its achievement. 12 Years A Slave is a giant leap forward for McQueen as a director. Whereas Shame and Hunger were beautiful in their own right, 12 Years A Slave’s searing look at one of the great moral stains on American history transcends the material, finding beauty and quiet contemplation amidst the overwhelming ugliness, and has cemented itself as one of the best films of the year.
12 Years A Slave is playing in select theaters now. Did you see the film? Let us know what you think in the comments below.