Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps
Sarah Paulson as Mary Epps
Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford
Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey
Adepero Oduye as Eliza
Garret Dillahunt as Armsby
Brad Pitt as Bass
Alfre Woodard as Mistress Harriet Shaw
Paul Dano as John Tibeats
Paul Giamatti as Theophilus Freeman
Michael K. Williams as Robert
Scoot McNairy as Brown
Taran Killam as Hamilton
Kelsey Scott as Anne Northup
Cameron Zeigler as Alonzo Northup
Quvenzhané Wallis as Margaret Northup
Bryan Batt as Judge Turner
Dwight Henry as Uncle Abram
Chris Chalk as Clemens Ray
Ruth Negga as Celeste
Bill Camp as Ebenezer Radburn
Christopher Berry as James Burch
Jay Huguley as Sheriff Villiere
Rob Steinberg as Cephas Parker
Mustafa Harris as Sam
Deneen Tyler as Phebe
Liza J. Bennett as Mrs. Ford
Storm Reid as Emily
Craig Tate as John Williams
Jason Ament as Cooke
Directed by Steve McQueen
In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man living in upstate New York until he was tricked by two men, drugged and sold into slavery. Over the next 12 years, Solomon, living under the false name of Platt, saw and endured all sorts of atrocities under the aegis of a number of progressively more vicious slave owners.
Steve McQueen’s third film as a director, a passion project he’s been wanting to make for years, tackles the true story of Solomon Northup, a well-educated black man played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who gets suckered into the slave trade by a couple of unscrupulous individuals. Like McQueen’s past work, it’s not an easy film to recommend to everyone whole-heartedly, even if it’s another step forward in the growth of one of the most innovative filmmakers of the past few years.
After an opening sequence of Solomon chopping sugar cane in a field, the story is told mostly in linear fashion with a few scattered flashbacks, meeting Solomon during better times with his family. After being drugged and sold into slavery, he tries to explain to no avail that he’s a “free man” and that a mistake has been made. Along the way, he finds a sympathetic individual, in his first master Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, who gives him a violin. Solomon makes waves with the other white slave overseers who don’t like his attitude. The only way to protect Solomon, Ford transfers his ownership to Epps, a despicable drunk who takes full advantage of slaves being his “property” that he can do anything with.
McQueen goes for an ultra-realistic approach to showing the horror of Solomon’s situation. McQueen always has found interesting ways to frame a shot for the most effective storytelling and that’s true especially during a scene where Solomon is lynched after fighting with a overseer, and we watch for roughly ten minutes as Ejiofor stands on his tiptoes to keep from being strangled while everyone around ignores him.
Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Northup grounds and centers the film although it’s very much a reactionary performance, whether he’s enduring or witnessing the humiliations and atrocities of slavery at the hands of various owners and overseers. Michael Fassbender’s character is an interesting one since he is almost completely bad although he gets a few moments off the hook because his wife, played by Sarah Paulson, is infinitely worse. This mostly comes to the fore in their respective treatment of a slave named Patsey, played by newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. It does leave a lot of questions about whether Patsey has underlining feelings towards her master or if she’s just enduring his rapes because she can’t do anything about it. Nyong’o is pretty amazing at selling this young woman’s struggle especially during the more violent scenes. Fassbender is extremely committed to creating a similarly-layered character with the drunken slave owner who masks his insecurities by abusing his “property.”
It’s easy to compare McQueen’s movie to Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List” and how it portrayed the Holocaust, but in this case “12 Years a Slave” seems somewhat dangerous in its efforts to stir up a long dormant blemish on our own country’s past and one wonders why anyone would want to experience that period in the graphic way it’s portrayed here. Solomon’s story is certainly a good one, but McQueen’s approach is so ruthless and his film is being released at a time where race relations in this country are so low that it doesn’t seem like a good time to stir things up.
The screenplay by John Ridley is a solid one although it’s jarring to hear the slaves talking to each other as if they’re in a Shakespeare play, which sometimes takes one out of the movie. There are also a few scenes that seem extraneous or unnecessary to Solomon’s story, like a brief tangent visiting a former slave who married her master, played by Alfre Woodard. It’s obvious the scene is there to show how some slaves have made the most of their grave situation.
McQueen’s attempts to create unique ways of using cinema to tell a story extends to the score by Hans Zimmer, which begins with odd atonal strings but then falls into the same manipulative themes he’s used before, including some of them seemingly recycled from past scores.
Eventually we return to the opening sequence–which is actually better times for Solomon than what comes before and after–and he finds light at the end of the tunnel due to a visiting Canadian abolitionist, but by then, we’ve experienced so many horrors with him, it’s hard to imagine he’d ever be able to fully recover. “12 Years a Slave” never lets the viewer off easy with any sort of ending that might be considered a “happy” one. After witnessing and enduring everything Solomon goes through, we really could use something uplifting to send us home and McQueen refuses to cowtow to that need.
The Bottom Line:
Brutal and relentless, it’s hard to recommend “12 Years a Slave” whole-heartedly even though it’s incredibly well directed and acted across the board. Maybe it’s a movie that will connect more on a second viewing, but who on earth would want to sit through it twice?