There’s a moment towards the end of 12 Years a Slave where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera and seemingly at the audience. He stares for an extended moment, as if to say, “Can you believe that only 150 years ago – this happened…in the United States of America?” 12 Years a Slave is the quintessential American slavery-era film; it is heartbreaking, disturbing, tender, raw, and also beautiful.
Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northrup, a free, New York citizen who is a victim of a horrific kidnapping scheme where Southern slave traders abduct free Black citizens and transport them South forcing them back into slavery. Northup’s life and family are ripped from him so suddenly that it is astonishing. The title is pragmatically evocative of how long Northrup will endure his injustice, and director Steve McQueen makes sure the audience feels every bit of it as well.
The film is based on Northrup’s own memoir, a literary example preciously rare as so many slaves died before they could tell their stories or were never taught to read and write. A pervasive struggle Northrup faces in the film is searching for tools or opportunities to write. The film opens with Northrup covertly trying to make ink out of blackberry juice and fashion a pen out of stray twigs. McQueen wisely emphasizes the oppressive silencing that occurred in order to, in some way, try to explain how such outrageousness was even possible for so long.
McQueen frames Northrup’s experience by casting recognizable faces as various archetypes of 19th Century Southern society. Paul Giamatti plays a slave merchant in all of its absurdity, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the hypocritical plantation owner who seemingly appreciates humanity but wants to turn his eyes from the horror he knows is happening right under his nose, and Brad Pitt plays…Jesus; I’m pretty sure he’s playing Jesus. However, one player, other than Ejiofor, gets to sink his teeth into a role that is far more substantial, Michael Fassbender. Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, a slave owner who owns Northrup for nearly 10 of his 12 years in slavery. Fassbender is terrifying; his character is reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ character in Schindler’s List, yes – he’s that chilling. However, what sets him apart from being a typical embodiment of evil is that as the film goes on, it is clear that Epps is mentally ill. This element does not garner sympathy for his actions, but it does reveal some of the helplessness inherent in a society that avoids the value of human life. The end result is a decaying infrastructure that eats away at itself until it collapses.
Of course, this is a showcase for Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has been on the brink of greatness for some time now. Ejiofor’s performance is certainly in the running for the best of the year. He harnesses strength as he portrays the effects of a dark and obtuse time in human history. As Solomon Northrup, he leads the audience through a series of events that certainly require a bold and fearless guide.
12 Years a Slave is a moody masterpiece that I’m sure offers more context in repeat viewings, but I don’t know what kind of person would be able to sit through this film more than once. McQueen contrasts the most abhorrent events of our young country’s history with some beautiful filmmaking, glorifying the Southern landscapes in rich, luscious irony. His camera is up close and personal, using countless close-ups with the clear objective of putting slavery “in your face.” The emotion is real and raw, not melodramatic. Towards the end of the film, Northrup finally breaks down, which is inevitable. He weeps for what he has missed. It is a history lesson of the best and worst kind. A