“12 Years A Slave” has an amazing story to tell, a story made all the more powerful and disturbing for being true.
In the 1840’s, a free and cultured black man named Solomon Northup lived happily and prosperously with his wife and two kids in Saratoga, New York. Tricked by a couple of charlatan entrepreneurs who convince him his violin skills are wanted in Washington D.C., Northup ends up in chains and shipped to the deep South – where he is not only stripped of his clothes but also of his identity. Given a new, single name – Platt – Northup suffers the indignities of slavery for a full dozen years.
The movie gives us a controlled but unflinching look at the horrors of this institutionalized inhumanity. Because the experience of slavery is as foreign to Northup initially as it is to us, we share in his shock and utter disorientation. And as the outrages, both physical and psychological, mount on Northup and his fellow slaves, so too does the audience’s fury.
The physical abuse and torture depicted in this film may be tough for some to take but I have to say, considering the circumstances, it’s remarkably restrained. Even at its most explicit, and there are some searing images, the film doesn’t linger unnecessarily.
And British director Steve McQueen balances these disturbing scenes with poetic glimpses of the gorgeous, natural settings these injustices take place in. Somewhat reminiscent of Terence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line.” These “nature” shots allow us to catch our collective breaths a bit but more importantly also underscore the unnaturalness of what’s happening in its midst.
“12 Years a Slave” is littered with great performances, especially Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup and Michael Fassbender as a particularly nasty slave-owner. Cameo appearances by Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt are all uniformly excellent, if slightly distracting. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as the most abused of the slaves makes a striking impression too.
When this film was first screened at the Toronto Film Festival a while back, it was immediately heralded as the frontrunner for the Best Pictiure Oscar this year. Having now seen the film, I see no reason to disagree with that assessment.