Directed by Steve McQueen
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: