It may never be possible for those of us alive today to understand the rank horror of American slavery, but 12 Years a Slave comes closer than perhaps any other film to creating a stark, grim, unadorned look at a portion of the period of American history that will always haunt us. Based on the autobiography of Solomon Northrup, the film lays out the true story of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s, shuttling between plantations for more than a decade before he found release and returned to his wife and children. The narrative hook here is not whether he will escape — the title lays out the timeline pretty frankly, and the facts are a matter of historical record — but what will be left of him when his time is served. Because that’s what he’s doing: serving time in a prison from which he cannot escape, and one he was thrown into for no reason other than that he was born black in a country founded on the idea that he could only ever be two-thirds of a real person. His sentence is horrific, and director Steve McQueen reconstructs the story in harrowing detail. McQueen’s previous films, Hunger and Shame, dealt with human bodies as objects and the tension between spiritual resistance and physical degradation, and 12 Years a Slave continues to explore those ideas in startling, gruesome, often upsetting and absolutely necessary ways that highlight the casual evil that defined the land just a few generations ago.
To get at the heart of that evil, McQueen does something so obvious it’s amazing more filmmakers don’t try it: he gets out of the way. The film’s most gripping moments (and there are many) are delivered bluntly, through simple set-ups that rely on a number of basic building blocks to tell the story a certain way. There’s the often classical, simple framing, shot by Sean Bobbitt (who also worked on Hunger and Shame), which maximizes clarity and space. There are lengthy takes at key moments, where the image refuses to cut away so McQueen can sit with his characters and let the turmoil of their situation unfold with real-life agony. And there are subtle but powerful compositions involving Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the slave at the heart of the story. In happier times, he’s shown with his family and friends, everyone looking at each other, sharing a visual space we can all enter. When he’s enslaved, though, he’s so often alone in the frame: no other slaves are looking in his direction, and his conversations with masters and overseers are usually shown in alternating reverse shots. Whenever he shares the screen with someone in this part of his life, it’s menacing, their bodies uneasily close. At every turn, McQueen, working from John Ridley’s script, isn’t just telling the story; he’s artfully bringing it to tragic life.
The result is a film composed of graphic, haunting images. There’s the scene where Solomon revolts against a vicious overseer named Tibeats (Paul Dano), and is subsequently strung up by a noose from a nearby tree. He’s almost hanged before a senior overseer chases Tibeats off, leaving Solomon to dangle just off the ground, the tips of toes pushing against the soft mud, while everyone waits for the master to return. McQueen doesn’t shy away from Solomon’s experience, but he also knows the most honest and compelling way to honor the story is to simply show what happened. So we get a stunning static take of Solomon, choking slightly, trying to make every snatched breath count, while the camera never stops and the other slaves go about their business. We finally cut to a shot from behind and far away, underscoring how alone Solomon is on the farm, and how every other slave is just as alone. Just as vulnerable to torture and death, and just as terrified to do anything to stop it. When Solomon’s current owner — an occasionally generous but ultimately weak man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) — arrives and finally cuts him down, it’s not even a relief. He’s managed not to die, but the experience solidifies the despair and disgrace these men and women were forced to live in.
By crafting something classically constructed, McQueen’s managed to find new ways to make us look at an old story. His rhythms are perfectly paced, and the film’s two-plus hours never once falter. He’s found a perfect balance between energetic Hollywood direction and the art-house background of his earlier films and video work, and the final film is rich, enveloping, and arresting. McQueen seems to know just what to do in every instance. When Solomon is first in chains, we sit with him in a lengthy take, drawn into his dawning horror and mounting impotence. When a group of slaves is set to work while Tibeats sings a hate-filled working song, the director layers images and sounds of feet shuffling in the dirt, logs being felled, and the ceaseless claps of the overseer, pounding through everything like a nightmare. When the group sings in the field, and Solomon surrenders to every last bit of sorrow, his baritone lifts up “Roll Jordan Roll” even as he weeps for the help that hasn’t come.
It’s important to stress here that the film isn’t good simply by nature of the tale it seeks to tell. McQueen doesn’t get a free pass just for nobly plunging into the bloody waters of American history; we’re not grading on a curve. Rather, he’s addressed something primal and awful in all of us, and he’s done so with grace and savage beauty. It’s not uncommon for prestige releases in the fall quarter to incorporate real-life events as a way to bolster credibility and appear to be important works of art simply because they’re drawn from history. But that basis is just the beginning; without real guidance and vision, you just have a messy assemblage of facts trying to pass for insight. This is what brought down Captain Phillips, and it’s one of the many reasons 12 Years a Slave is so outstanding. McQueen’s directed a gripping, expertly made film that never loses sight of the fact that it’s a created work. Its purpose is not (just) to remind you of something that happened, but to forcefully evoke it on screen, to drag it back to life in ways only art can do. McQueen’s made a damning, strong movie that does just that.
That sense of resilience also has a lot to do with Ejiofor, who’s phenomenal as Solomon. Ejiofor’s not one to be type-cast — he’s been equally confident playing supporting or lead roles — but he always manages to bring a sense of deep, quiet pride to his characters’ struggles. On paper, there’s not much to connect the drag queen lounge singer in Kinky Boots with the ruthless government operative from Serenity, but Ejiofor was able to zero in on the core of each, rooting his performance in a kind of regality that refused to buckle to circumstance. Drama is all about a character’s struggle to achieve something in the face of overwhelming obstacles, and Ejiofor’s able to make every one of those struggles matter because of the strength he brings to those performances. But this is beyond and above all those, far and away the most soulful and stirring thing he’s ever done. His anger, his despair, his righteous sorrow: it always boils in him, never settling, and you can see Ejiofor wrestling with it at every turn.
His spiritual combat is waged most heatedly when he’s sold by Ford to a man named Epps (Michael Fassbender). Ford was, in the barest way, partial to the suffering of slaves: he owned and worked them like cattle, but he also endeavored to keep them as free from torment as you’d keep a pet. Epps is the opposite: a drunken, cruel, tempestuous man who favors beatings and terror as ways to keep his slaves in check. On Epps’ land, Solomon endures such degradations, beatings, and abuses that you want to cry out — surely, this is just some story. Surely this can’t be real. Surely these things didn’t happen. What you wouldn’t give for this to just be a story. When Epps lectures his slaves by shaking a Bible at them, intoning things like “There is no sin. Man does how he pleases with his property,” you can feel the walls close in.
Discussing the slave trade in the late 18th century, William Wilberforce said, “You may choose to look the other way, but you can never say again that you did not know.” That’s the best way to describe the extraordinary work McQueen’s done here. He’s rendered a stunning film that does what the best art can do: It moves us into new worlds even as it helps us shape our own. 12 Years a Slave is one of those movies that makes you use phrases like “towering achievement” and mean them, even as you know how small and grasping those words feel and how poor a tool they are for pinning the film down. Stripped of melodrama, tricks, and apologetics, the film instead becomes a living record, a testament to love and freedom and death and suffering and every horrible and loving thing we do to ourselves. It’s not for nothing that one of the film’s transitions is simply Solomon in the fields, listening to the world around him, slowly turning until he stares into the camera for a moment before moving on, as if to remind us that we’re a part of everything that’s happened — that’s happening. Solomon’s legacy was almost lost to the ages, too: if not for the dogged work of historians and researchers, his account would’ve washed away, long since labeled fiction by those who sought to rewrite history. But his story is our story, and in telling one man’s life, McQueen gets to tell them all. His film — his brutal, sweeping, uncompromising, beautiful, worthy film — feels as much a summation of who we are as anything else, and it reckons with our past with its eyes open. Watching it, you can hear the chains, and the cries, and the pleas for mercy. Maybe we’ll never comprehend it, not really, but we’re closer. Never say again that you did not know.