This One's for the History Books

12 Years a Slave
(USA/UK, 134 min.)
Dir. Steve McQueen, Writ. John Ridley
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Adepero Oduye, Lupita Nyong’o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Alfre Woodard.
Michael Fassbender as Epps and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave.
I can speak of Slavery only so far as it came under my own observation—only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.
-Solomon Northup, Twelve Years a Slave

Films just don’t get much better than 12 Years a Slave. Slave, the well-deserved recipient of the People’s Choice Award at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, uses the visual power of cinema for exactly the reason that the medium was invented: to entertain, but also to enlighten. Steve McQueen visual audacity makes 12 Years a Slave hit audiences with a force they’ve rarely felt at the movies. This adaptation of the true story of Solomon Northup—an African American who was born as a free man, but was abducted and sold into slavery only to be rescued after a dozen years of labour on the plantations—is a bold, brutal, and ultimately transformative film experience. 12 Years a Slave feels like a cinematic landmark.

If Northup’s 1853 book remains one of the most compelling and dramatic insights into the “peculiar institution” of slavery, then Steve McQueen’s film is a worthy adaptation. The screenplay by John Ridley (Undercover Brother) is mostly faithful to its canonical source, but 12 Years a Slave finds a visceral cinematic freedom in its depiction of the conditions Northup describes from his experience. 12 Years a Slave does for the American history what Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List does for representations of the Holocaust. This film will shake you.

12 Years a Slave is anchored by a phenomenal performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (Children of Men) as Northup. Ejiofor plays Northup as a man of unwavering dignity and humility, as he is thrown into the hot hellfire below the Mason-Dixon Line. Northup is free and making a comfortable living in New York when the film begins. He provides for his wife, Anne, and his two children (one of which is played by Beasts of the Southern Wild’s little hurricane Quvenzhané Wallis), and his skills on the violin receive an offer from two men who promise money and an extended circus tour.

Solomon is duped by the men and then sold into slavery. He awakens in shackles, protesting his freedom to deaf ears, before a ride on a treacherous slave ship brings him to Louisiana. Solomon, renamed Platt upon arriving in Louisiana, is first sold to a slave driver named Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch from The Fifth Estate and August: Osage County). Also among Ford’s purchase is Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, whose strong screen presence more than adequately compensates for the extent to which Eliza’s role is reduced in the adaptation. Eliza, separated from her children during the transaction by a cruel slave trader (Paul Giamatti), remains on the plantation like a figure of the walking dead. Eliza knows no happiness during her lifetime; only sadness, heartache, and misery, which Solomon sees are all too prevalent on the plantations when he is sold again and meets Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) on the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Northup remains on the Epps plantation for his final decade of bondage. Epps is a self-proclaimed “nigger breaker”. He is the epitome of cruelty and meanness. Fassbender commands the screen as Epps, playing the slave driver as a spine-chilling man of evil. Fassbender captures the inhumanity of slavery with Epps’s self-serving sliminess that makes one’s skin crawl. Mistress Epps, played by a scene-stealing Sarah Paulson, is equally disquieting in her cold, nonchalant abuse of Patsey. Patsey, Epps’ favourite both her for nimble fingers on the cotton field—she can pick 500 hundred pounds daily compared to the average slave’s haul of 200—and for her beauty. Patsey’s suffering is compounded, for she is a pawn between the two cruel, soulless slave drivers.

The hardship of life on the Epps plantation hits its peak in a near heart-stopping moment in which Epps gives Patsey a brutal whipping. Patsey’s crime is an innocent one: on the Sabbath, she visits a neighbouring plantation to receive a bar of soap because Mistress Epps refuses to give her one as punishment for her husband’s affection. The wrathful Eppses strip Patsey, tie her to a pole, and give her an almighty flogging. The punishment is doubly cruel, for Epps cannot bring himself to flay the slave he adores. Under the gaze of Mistress Epps, the whip is passed to Solomon.

Inhumanity has never seen such a bold composition as that in which Patsey’s face assumes the foreground and Solomon’s occupies the background. As slave brutalizes slave, McQueen dramatizes a horrific business that makes victims of all who are in it. The stark violence and callousness of the scene then doubles when Solomon cannot bear the pain he inflicts on Patsey anymore and Epps takes control of the whip with greater force. It’s then that 12 Years a Slave offers its frankest blow for the legacy of slavery in America. Lash upon lash strips Patsey’s ebony flesh to the bone. Nyong’o’s revelatory emotional force in this scene—and especially in the pleading that precedes the whipping—is an incredibly affecting and troubling feat. As 12 Years a Slave returns to Patsey’s wounded face once Epps relinquishes his fury and Patsey crumbles, letting the small ivory coloured bar of soap fall to the ground after remaining in her clutches throughout the ordeal, the film offers a ferociously visceral realization of the horrors of plantation life described by Northup (albeit less graphically) in his book.

McQueen’s no-holds-barred direction of 12 Years a Slave is necessarily bold and brutal. The provocative, elongated acts of violence of the film unfold with horrific power. The experience of 12 Years a Slave is probably much like what Alex felt while being strapped to a chair in A Clockwork Orange and having his eyelids propped open while images of violence flashed before him. 12 Years a Slave holds where most films would cut away. McQueen wants the audience to take note at the horror of what they see: this story is a truth of American history. The legacy of American capitalism was built on the flayed backs of victims like Patsey. It’s sickening, and doubly so for the fact that it took so long for such a frank depiction of this side of American history to grace the screen.

While the assault on Patsey is sure to remain one of the most debated scenes of the year, there is another moment in 12 Years a Slave in which McQueen’s subtle eye for the visual power of cinema furthers Northup’s narrative to a remarkable degree. Around the midpoint of the film, our hero is strung up on a noose and ready to meet his death. The penalty comes when Solomon retaliates against Tibeats (Paul Dano), a vindictive acquaintance of Master Ford, and gains control of the whip and beats the white boy. In turn, Tibeats’s friends string Solomon to a tree. It’s only when one of Ford’s workers notes that Ford will suffer severe financial duress that Tibeats stops raising Solomon up the tree. The men leave Solomon hanging as they await Ford’s return. McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt (who also shot McQueen’s previous films Hunger and Shame) capture the rest of Solomon’s day in one haunting long take.

As Solomon dangles inches from his death, he shuffles his feet along the muddy ground to find a steady footing that will keep him alive until his master returns. His fellow slaves come out of hiding once Tibeats et al flee the scene. The deep focus of the shot shows the slaves putter about the plantation, resuming their duties as if one of their own was not on the cusp of death. The slaves pay Solomon no heed as they move around the space of the plantation and Solomon remains in the centre of the scene. The shot, one of the most powerful image of the year, suggests how deeply internalized is the ideology with which the film engages. The slaves on the plantation are so brutalized into docility they cannot save the life of one of their own.

12 Years a Slave acknowledges the frozen passivity of the slaves in one unusual moment in which the film breaks the fourth wall between the characters and the audience. A singular close-up on Ejiofor sees Solomon stare directly into the camera. The film returns the gaze to the viewer, acknowledging one’s ability to do nothing but watch in dismay. There might be many a moment in 12 Years a Slave when a viewer might wonder why Solomon and company fail to react. It’s akin to the musing proffered by Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s Blaxploitation spin on slavery, which ponders why the slaves don’t rise up and annihilate the white man. Better yet, Solomon’s unnerving stare is the visual equivalent of the question that Hanna Schmitz (Kate Winslet) asks directly in The Reader: “What would you have done?”

This visual astuteness that makes 12 Years a Slave such a cutting experience on both an emotional and an intellectual level. The adaptation might have easily honoured its hero by offering his own words in voiceover, allowing Solomon to narrate his exploits on the road to freedom; however, the film finds a voice of its own and it’s an authentically bold one at that. Perhaps it’s fitting that the film eschews the words of the book. Twelve Years a Slave, as told by Northup to editor David Wilson, speaks with surprising favour of some of the cruel owners Solomon encounters on his way. Even Mistress Epps is said to shed a tear upon Solomon’s departure.

The book, for all its critical framing of Northup’s experience, says that there are nevertheless some pretty good slave drivers one might happen to fall upon. The film, however, shows that no matter how respectable an individual might be, he or she is still an agent in a profoundly dirty business. The matter arises once during a debate between Solomon and Eliza that touches the pits of both their despair: Solomon tries to find the bright side in his servitude, saying that Master Ford is a decent man. Eliza simply replies that he’s still a slave driver. No shred of goodness can compensate for the reality the film shows.

Equally powerful is one lengthy portrait that McQueen and Bobbitt frame on the face of a fellow slave as the workers on the plantation bury one of the workers who died on the field. The woman leads the funeral procession in a soulful hymn, which is featured in the film’s trailer. Ejiofor mumbles the words before breaking in to a full bravado, marking the moment that Solomon acknowledges a kinship he feels with his fellow slaves on the plantation. It’s a rare moment of release in the emotional journey of 12 Years a Slave. The ultimate catharsis comes at the end, however, when Solomon is finally reunited with his family and Ejiofor unloads the burden that Solomon’s been carrying throughout his ordeal.

12 Years a Slave is an achievement in every sense. From Ejiofor’s poignant and commanding lead to the excellent ensemble cast, which also includes memorable appearances by Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard, to McQueen’s refreshing direction, 12 Years a Slave is a fully realized endeavour. It’s one for the history books.

Rating: ★★★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

12 Years a Slave is now playing in theatres.