Rating: A-/ Imagine living a regular, relatively charmed life and being taken from your home, your family, everything you know. Imagine being shipped overnight to a place where you could be both bought and sold as property. It seems so unreal, doesn’t it? But in 1841, it actually happened to Solomon Northup (played here by Chiwetel Ejiofor,) a free black man who was drugged and kidnapped by two con men and sent to the Antebellum South as a slave. Solomon was educated, savvy, everything that was forbidden of blacks during this time, and he soon learned to hide the fact that he could read and write and tried to go unnoticed among the hoards of black faces that passed through insane slave owner Edwin Epps’ (Michael Fassbender)’s cotton fields every day. Solomon certainly must have known that most black people weren’t born into the same good fortune as he was, but the behavior he sees down South during his experiences as a slave curdles his blood; especially the treatment of the slave girl, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o) with whom Solomon builds a tentative bond.
It’s fair to say that most people know that what the slaves in the South in those days had to put up with was no picnic. But you might not have really allowed yourself to think about how harrowing it was to be one of the many unfortunate to be owned by a wealthy white person. 12 Years a Slave is intense and disturbing, and we’d expect no less from the director of Shame and Hunger, which weren’t exactly laugh riots at the best of times. Compared to his two previous features, director Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen, of The Great Escape fame) spends less time on long, lingering close-ups and artsy cinematography, that’s not to say it isn’t a visually beautiful movie, but he runs his ship a little tighter here.
He picked an amazing set of underused black actors and actresses here (including Adepero Oduye of Pariah, Dwight Henry and Quvenzhane Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Lupita Nyong’o, who won best supporting actress Oscar for this movie in 2013.) But the actor who really stands out for me is Chiwetel Ejiofor. He can convey so much incredible pain without ever overplaying his hand or stepping out of character. Why he didn’t get more Oscar buzz for this is beyond me (although it’s nice to see he got a nomination, show the man some love!) It’s the little things as well as the big things that strike me about this movie, there’s the whippings and the beatings and the degrading sexual behavior Edwin displays toward Patsy, and then there are the subtleties, like the way a white store owner refuses to meet Solomon’s eye as he shops at his business in the deep South.
Overall, this isn’t the most subtle movie in the world, but it is effective. It stings like a fresh wound and like a fresh wound you don’t want to look at it, but your eyes keep coming back to the place where you have been stuck, again and again. The way this film builds dread is amazing. It’s pretty much like what they say about watching a train wreck. Should you choose to watch it, you won’t be able to turn it off or do anything else for it’s 2 hours + running time, for better and for worse, you’ll be captivated by it. It’s not a pretty film, but it is an important one, and something inside of you knows that.
So, yes, 12 Years a Slave is a great and certainly terrifically acted movie, with an ending that will bring the hardest man to tears. It’s not just another white guilt trip movie, it’s beautiful while at the same time being very ugly and bleak. And the conclusion is as bittersweet and touching a payoff as I’ve seen in a long time. The really sad thing is the way Northup apologizes, again and again, when we the audience know that only his captors are to blame. It’s hard to imagine being separated from your family for twelve years, but somehow you feel like Solomon and his brood will be all right, little by little. Well, as all right as they are able. The world can be unbelievably harsh, but Solomon’s survival among unimaginable circumstances is a testament to the human spirit as well as to a father determined to get back to his wife and kids, no matter what. If this movie doesn’t bring a tear to your eye at least once, maybe you should check for a pulse. 12 Years a Slave is maybe a little less cold and clinical than McQueen’s earlier films, but it is no less vital a work.