Title: 12 Years a Slave
Not Exactly a "Feel-Good" Movie, Then? Hey, there's always Mandingo.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant to the Film: Five copies of the 13th Amendment out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Free man is kidnapped and sold into slavery. Hijinx do not ensue.
Tagline: "The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup."
Better Tagline: "From the writer of Undercover Brother. No, really."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) has a pretty good life by anyone's (black or white) standards: wife, two kids, and a decent career as a violinist in Saratoga, NY. Imagine his surprise when, after traveling to Washington, DC with two strangers on the promise of a lucrative gig, he wakes up in chains. Shipped to Louisiana and sold into servitude, Northup spends a hellish 12 years in bondage, wondering if he'll survive his ordeal, much less see his family again.
"Critical" Analysis: In spite of what I said above, it simply isn't possible to imagine Northup's ordeal, but director Steve McQueen, working from John Ridley's adaptation of Northup's autobiography, does his best to put you in the man's shoes. You're going to see a lot of adjectives like "searing," "devastating," and "harrowing" attached to reviews of 12 Years a Slave, and that's fine, because the movie is all of those and more.
12 Years a Slave is not a pleasant film to watch, for while the horrors on display won't be especially surprising to anyone passably familiar with the state of affairs in the antebellum South, rarely have they been brought to the screen in such excruciatingly vivid detail. McQueen is unflinching in his depiction of the depredations and violations wrought upon an entire race of human beings, lingering at times in unbearable quasi-Malickian fashion. Even knowing what to expect, several scenes were awfully hard to watch, and many members of the audience at my screening were sobbing.
But to concentrate solely on the atrocities herein would do the film a disservice. McQueen could've quite easily crammed the running time with nothing but the white man's inhumanity to the black man, and while that admittedly would've been historically accurate, it'd make for a tedious cinema experience. Instead, he focuses on Northup and his struggles to come to grips with his situation and the relationships he develops with both his owners and his fellow "property."
Chiwetel Ejiofor is going to get nominated for every acting award on the planet for his performance, and he's earned every one of them. He is, simply put, outstanding. If you caught his supporting roles in Serenity or Talk to Me or Four Brothers (it's underrated!) then you knew the man had talent. Here, however, he's practically in another dimension, channeling Northup's terror, rage, and inevitably diminishing hope through the course of those long years.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to the mission of the Houston Press. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Houston’s stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
And it's testimony to his chops that he stands out *even* among the cast assembled around him. I know a lot of you are fans of Michael Fassbender, but as Edwin Epps - Northup's second and final owner - he is a motherfucker of the first water. A sadistic alcoholic, yet one obsessed with a field worker named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), though not so much that he shows her anything resembling compassion when it counts. And Nyong'o is wonderful as well, if heartbreakingly so, and this is her *first movie.*
Ultimately, where 12 Years a Slave crosses the line into the superlative is in McQueen's lack of equivocation. There are no "good" masters here, just those that treat their slaves like beloved pets - in this case, Northup's first owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). In a way, Ford's ilk are worse than the likes of Epps, because they undeniably realize what they're doing is wrong, and barbarically so, yet refuse to challenge the status quo. Similarly, McQueen doesn't shy away from showing the lengths slaves had to go to in order to survive, be it groveling before a kind owner, ignoring one of their own left to die, or taking up as consort to their owner like Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard).
But make no mistake, this is Ejiofor's show, and he commands it utterly from minute one. 12 Years a Slave is a great movie about a horrific era in human history, much like Schindler's List. You owe it to yourself to watch it, even if - again like Schindler's List - you never watch it again.
12 Years a Slave is in theaters now. I hope it compels at least a few people to peel the Stars and Bars bumper stickers from their F-150s.