Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free negro and talented musician living in New York City in 1841 is unable to verify his identity when he’s captured and sold into slavery where he spends the next twelve years under the harsh supervision of plantation owners.
With “12 Years a Slave,” director Steve McQueen continues to develop his unflinching habit of calling attention to things we’d rather not think about – political unrest (“Hunger”), sex addiction (“Shame”), and now American slavery in the 1800’s in this harrowing adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoirs. Again present are all of McQueen’s auteur flourishes: a rich, somber, string-heavy score by Hanz Zimmer, Sean Bobbit’s strong, naturalistic photography, and an appreciation for the anguish that a human face can express.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men”) is a strong, relatable presence in a film that wouldn’t work without an approachable lead performer. Ejiofor in a matter of two hours establishes himself as one of our great actors, bringing the film into emotional overdrive despite McQueen’s sometimes distant, aloof treatment of the material.
The many motivations behind violent racism drive this powerful cinematic experience that’s at times overwhelming in its dolefulness. “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” a slave auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) remarks when begged not to split up a mother from her children. Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender serve as two of the plantation owners that Solomon serves under. Cumberbatch is one of the film’s only shades of hope as a slave owner that can at least see the value of Solomon as a human being – offering him the chance to play the violin again, but doing nothing to return him to his rightful place as a free man. Later, Solomon is sent to work instead for Edwin Epps (Fassbender), a volatile, brutal slave owner that draws on religion, superstition, and sheer madness to fuel his wickedness.
In a long list of attributes to the pristine production, the most remarkable is that McQueen knows when to hold the shot. Most notably in a scene in which Solomon is nearly hung from a tree but is kept suspended just above the ground – his toes barely touching the wet mud beneath him – left for hours while the plantation’s white children play games in the distance. Here, and in a few other crucial points, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt’s camera holds, unfaltering, and subjects the viewer to an uncomfortable confrontation with the small details involved in human suffering. While so many films released this time of year are made for the Oscars, “12 Years a Slave” is the type of film the Oscars were made to recognize.
U.S. Wide Release: November 8, 2013 | U.K. Wide Release: January 10, 2014
2 hrs. 14 min.