“I don’t want to survive,” says Solomon Northup, the protagonist of 12 Years a Slave. “I want to live.” Born a free black man in New York City, Northup was married with two children and made a living as a musician when he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, stripped of his name, identity and everything he held dear – everything except his dignity. After being drugged at a dinner party, he wakes up in chains and shackles, terrified. When he protests and explains there has been a mistake, he is beaten by his white captors with a board. When it breaks, they use a whip. “You ain’t a free man,” one of them tells Solomon. “You’re a Georgia runaway.”
12 Years a Slave was adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s memoir, which was published in 1853 but had since fallen into obscurity, and directed by Steve McQueen, whose previous two films (Hunger and Shame) were rigorous, graphic studies of unpleasant subject matter told with a cool, intellectual detachment. But although McQueen continues to keep his cameras trained on images most other filmmakers would leave to the imagination, the filmmaker has also brought emotion and empathy to a subject matter rarely explored in Hollywood pictures – and then almost always in broad, impersonal strokes.
As played by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Redbelt, American Gangster, Children of Men), Solomon spends half the film in a state of disbelief – how could this be happening to him? In an early scene, during an auction at the home of a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), he watches as a distraught mother is separated from her two children. When he snaps and rises up against a cowardly farmhand (Paul Dano) who delights in taunting him, Solomon is strung up on a tree, hands tied behind his back, a noose around his neck, surviving only by standing on his toes for what feels like hours (in the background, we see slaves going about their daily business, not even so much as looking at him, because they know the same fate would befall them if they dared to interfere).
As 12 Years a Slave goes on, Solomon begins to understand his fellow slaves’ despair. The temptation to give up threatens to overcome the human instinct to survive. And after he’s sold to the cotton farmer Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a psychotic sadist known as a “breaker” of slaves, Solomon’s existence becomes too miserable to bear. But an attempt to flee leads to a horrific dead-end. Still, his spirit remains unbroken. When a distraught young slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), begs him to kill her (“I ain’t got no comfort in this life,” she says), Solomon reacts with bewilderment and declines. What kind of thing is that to ask of someone?
One of the best things about 12 Years a Slave is that McQueen renders all the characters with the same depth and complexity as his protagonist. Fassbender plays Epps as an alcoholic who is also drunk on the power to treat other human beings like they were his toys. One night, he stumbles into the slaves’ quarters, shambling across the floor like a monster, rousing them from their sleep and bringing him inside his home so they can dance for him. He rapes Patsey, turned on by her weakness and vulnerability, which does not sit well with his wife (a frightening Sarah Paulson), who may be even more demented than her husband.
Fassbender invests himself into his character with an uncommon ferocity: In one of the movie’s many long takes (a McQueen trademark), he brings his face right up to Solomon’s, trying to determine whether the slave is lying to him, and he barely even blinks. But Fassbender also shows glimmers of Epps’ self-hatred and insecurities. He has a conscience – he’s not a cartoon – but he refuses to deal with his guilt. Instead, he simply takes it out on his slaves.
12 Years a Slave has several small but memorable supporting turns, including Benedict Cumberbatch as another plantation owner who tries to help Solomon but ends up making his situation worse. In just one scene, Alfre Woodard gives a performance as a former slave who has learned to work the system in order to sip tea from fine china in elegant dress that deserves its own movie (the film shrewdly examines the socioeconomic and class structures of slavery as if it were an industry). The film’s only misstep is an appearance by Brad Pitt, in a small role as a Canadian carpenter who is baffled by slavery. The actor is fine, but his celebrity status momentarily derails the picture – you’re suddenly taken out of the story – and the saintly dialogue he spouts doesn’t help (“What is true and right is true and right for all,” he says of civil rights).
But that minor distraction is easy to forgive. 12 Years a Slave has moments of silent, poetic beauty, such as a scene in which Solomon stands alone in the woods, listening to the sounds of nature around him, trying to wrap his mind around the situation he’s stranded in. The movie does not shy away from the innate brutality of its subject matter: Although there is nothing here as graphic as the mandingo fight in Django Unchained, McQueen does give you a close-up look at what a prolonged bout of whipping does to the human body. More importantly, though, the film also shows you the effect such violence has on the mind and soul, creating scars that endure for generations. 12 Years a Slave is at times difficult to watch but always impossible to turn away from: It’s the true story of one man used to illustrate the travails of millions, some of whom, like Solomon, managed to find a way to survive and endure.
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt.
Director: Steve McQueen.
Screenwriter: John Ridley. Based on the memoir by Solomon Northup.
Producers: Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen.
A Fox Searchlight Pictures release. Running time: 134 minutes. Vulgar language, violence, gore, nudity, sexual situations, strong adult themes. Opens Friday Nov. 1 at area theaters.