“Please excuse my appearance. I’ve had a hard time these past few years.”
Those words are spoken by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) as he looks upon the faces of his wife and children for the first time in a dozen years, his eyes brimming with tears of great sadness. You would think that after being kidnapped into slavery and stolen away from your family, a reunion like this would be a joyful one. But Northup, a free-born slave who found himself caught up in a dire mess, has seen unimaginable horror in his time — and so have we, if only through the safety of a camera lens. By the time Northup’s extended nightmare has come to an end, we’ve been witness to not only kidnapping, torture, rape, lynching, and a flogging that is painful and excruciating to watch, but the demoralization and debasement of an entire people who were treated not for their humanity and living worth, but their value as stock in the supply chain.
Northup earns his experience the hard way: Born in New York as a free black man, he has a beautiful wife and two children, and a nice home. His walks through town earn him the kindness of not only his friends, but strangers. Occasionally, the real world down south intersects with his, as in the day an actual slave accidentally wanders into a pharmacy, looking confused, before his master rushes him out, embarrassed. Northrup only vaguely registers the situation: he’s about as free as a black man can be in 1841, and, by all accounts, seems to be leading a charmed life.
One day, fate intervenes: while his wife is away, Northrup, a gifted violinist, is convinced to travel to Washington to play for a traveling minstrel show. The money offered would come in handy, and so Northrup agrees. After a night of heavy drinking, he wakes up shackled in a basement. It takes him almost no time to understand the gambit: he’s been sold as a slave, and his free-born papers are nowhere to be found. Northrup is indignant: How could anyone possibly confuse him for a slave? His protestations of freedom are met with a horrific beating by the slavemaster. Soon, Northrup is packed onto a boat with other bamboozled free-borns and shipped like so much cargo to Louisiana. It’s during the trip that Northrup learns the rules from other slaves: keep your head down, don’t speak up, and whatever you do, don’t let them know you can read and write because an educated slave is a dead slave. The ultimate humiliation comes when, upon arrival at port, he’s stripped of his name and re-branded as “Platt.”
Passed like an old workhouse from plantation to plantation, Platt manages to hold onto his hope that he’ll one day be reunited in the north with his family. But all of that comes to an end, as he enters the inner circle of hell with the cotton farmer, Edwin Epps. Here, the movie arcs and dives into darkness and suffering unlike any I’ve seen in modern-day film. Played by Michael Fassbender in a performance of raw, unconstrained aggression, Epps is a certified manic sadist who uses his slaves as a means to vent his anger and sexual frustrations. Slaves who don’t perform to his standards are brutally whipped. All live in fear of his violent, thrashing temper tantrums. His behavior is enabled by his petulant wife (a creepily effective Sarah Paulson), who’s much more in control of her emotions, but no less a sadist than her husband. The object of her constant ire is Patsey, a waifish and broken down field slave with the highest daily cotton yield, and Epps’ sexual play toy. Patsey submits to her master’s demands because all choice has been removed from her control, even though doing so engenders swift retribution from his wife. When Epps misperceives a moment of disobedience from Patsey, his punishment is cruel: obsessed with the girl, he finds himself unable to whip her, and so forces Platt to do it for him. Platt, having grown close with Patsey through shared misery, relents, believing wrongly that he can minimize her pain. The flogging is insidious in its construction: director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) allows us to believe we’ll be spared its harsh reality and then, quite unexpectedly, puts us directly in the middle of it through a quick trick of the camera. It’s a scene of almost indescribable power and misery, largely due to the fierce commitment of Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey. McQueen has given his actress a task that, on paper, must have seemed almost impossible to pull off, by subjecting her character to unspeakable atrocities; but Nyong’o faces it with a steely grace. This is the most extraordinary performance you’ll see this year, and should serve as a launching pad for a fine career.
12 Years a Slave isn’t your grandmother’s Gone with the Wind, with its tragic heroine and sassy black housemaid, but a direct and unflinching look at the brutality of slavery in the antebellum South. Some will find it difficult to watch. This isn’t the kind of movie you say you “enjoy.” There is nothing uplifting in its entire two-plus hour runtime, and it ends — with all due respect to that sad reunion — on a downbeat note, as an end-card informs us that none of Northup’s captors was ever punished for his crimes. To see it is to allow yourself to be wrapped up in its anguish and despair — to submit to its unique power. The only other film I can think of that equals it is Bergman’s 1972 masterpiece, Cries and Whispers, about sisters in the final throes of illness and emotional devastation.
12 Years a Slave is the year’s best film. I can’t possibly imagine a better one coming along. It should be seen because it must be seen, not as a message or a reminder, but because it is one of the most superb examples of the art of filmmaking I can imagine. Oscar nominations for major categories are practically assured at this point. Chiwetel Ejiofor is currently the front runner for Best Actor for his stunning and passionate performance as the weary Platt, and I suspect he’ll win. Movies like 12 Years a Slave come along so rarely, that it becomes an obligation to spread the word: see it. As soon as you can.