12 Years a Slave is a film filled with a litany of stunning images. But let me begin by focusing your attention on the thrumming wheel of a paddle steamboat thrashing the water with a terrible violence. Inside the hold of this ship are the human cattle caught in the machinery of the slave trade.
Our guide into the unimaginable predicament of 12 Years a Slave is Solomon Northup, a cultured, literate, African American musician from New York. He's a free man who is kidnapped by slave-rustlers working for Alabama plantations.
Bound by manacles, Northup and the others discuss their fate: resist and attempt to overpower the crew or capitulate and survive? We witness the terrible cost of the latter as Northup is forced to surrender his name, his skills and his dignity, all in the name of living another day.
Soon after, Northup is auctioned — paraded around an immaculate parlour room where kidnapped blacks are examined like livestock. Paul Giamatti appears briefly as the slaves' showroom salesman in a stunning, pitiless performance. "Look at the legs on this one. The teeth. Fine thighs. Jump, boy, jump!" he declares.
Like Northup, all we can do is watch, wait and endure. This is very much the theme of this third film from Steve McQueen, a British director who hails from the art world. Again and again, he forces us to bear witness and directs our gaze, as his camera stares unblinkingly at skin-crawling scenes of degradation.
And then, heightening the effect, he offers breathtaking sequences of beauty — contrasts against the cruelty. As a man swings, gagging on a noose, cicadas chirp in the background. A trio of children frolic in the fields as a slave is flayed. A final plea scrawled on paper smoulders into ash, each orange ember like a dying star.
After hearing this symphony of anguish described, it's natural to wonder why anyone would subject themselves to the experience. Indeed, there are already reports of members of the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts (aka the Oscar voters) leaving screenings.
But part of what makes 12 Years so arresting is the soulful performance of its cast. As Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a man who understands all too well what he has lost. His face simmers with rage and his eyes are glossy with tears, but so much of it is tamped down below the surface. As we see Northup eke out a living on different plantations, it's obvious he's an educated man: a talented violinist with a knack for engineering, he is forced into playing a lowly, shuffling slave.
But the tale, based on Northup's memoir (padded out into a expansive and artful script by John Ridley), widens the frame to show us multiple levels of slavery at work. Plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a somewhat kind master whose hands are bound by debts. The sadistic Epps, played by McQueen favourite Michael Fassbender, uses his perverted interpretation of the Bible to whip and control what he sees as his property. He is a complicated villain, tortured by his lust for Patsey, the young slave he dubs the Queen of the Fields. (Lupita Nyong'o in another of the film's searing performances.)
If there's a weak link in 12 Years a Slave, it unfortunately lies with one of the film's champions: producer-actor Brad Pitt. Appearing late in the film as a key character — a Canadian carpenter named Samuel Bass — Pitt's folksy manner and Bee Gees-meets-Amish appearance falls below the impeccable standards of the cast overall. When Bass instructs Epps on universal rights, it's satisfying to hear but feels almost redundant after everything we've witnessed already.
It's ironic that it took a British director and a British star to reframe how we look at this dark era of U.S. history. Perhaps the United States needed an outsider with fresh eyes to remind us all just how easy it is for lives to be traded and sold. By chaining us to Northup — through his struggle, his misery and his hard-won freedom — 12 Years a Slave makes the plague of slavery personal for the audience. It is a film to be watched, witnessed, celebrated and savoured.
RATING: 5 out of 5
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