At several points in 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (renamed “Platt”) fills the frame before the looming, humid green of the plantation on which he’s a slave. Because of what’s come before it, the scene only serves to make his isolation that much sharper. Whatever he’s doing in these moments—working, suffering, hoping—he is unguarded. It’s wrenching; we think we recognize his mask until it’s demonstrated how little we know, how lost he’s becoming. To be a slave and remain who you are is impossible. In these moments, we get reminded.
12 Years a Slave is more than just a biopic of Northup, a free man lured from New York to Washington, D.C. and sold into slavery, whose account of his ordeal and subsequent rescue galvanized the abolitionist movement. And though the film presents several iterations of plantation life in the antebellum South, from relatively benevolent complicity to hellish disregard, it’s more than a travelogue of the indignities of slavery. Instead, director Steve McQueen drills into the heart of what it means to be a slave: An unflinching exploration of a man trapped in a nightmare. With enough scope to examine its impact on a community forcibly dehumanized by organized and terrible helplessness, it’s a remarkable achievement, brilliantly executed.
Immediately immersive, the movie briefly traces Northup’s family life and his kidnapping, but though much happens in 12 Years a Slave, it’s constructed to feel aimless, endless. There are no indicators of how long the protagonist spends in any one place, as time becomes increasingly meaningless; bursts of horror follow stretches of monotony that build dread as effectively as the brutality itself startles. More importantly, brutality doesn’t always equal violence; in the vocabulary of slavery, every touch is an invasion, every question from a white person an attempt to control.
This is also a slavery movie without the comforts often given to audiences watching slave narratives. Though some slaves find support systems, we don’t meet them. When a friend can be ordered to beat you, to be a slave is to be perpetually friendless. On top of that, Northup is hiding who he is—his education, his background, his real name—isolating him even further. It makes it all the more painful when his attempts to hold on to his old life start to fail, or betray him, He sobs with frustration over a letter unsent and breaks his prized violin to pieces. His visions of his family become infrequent, then chillingly stop. It’s dehumanization happening in real time, and we bear witness to it all.
A movie covering this much ground needs one hell of a star, and Chiwetel Ejiofor delivers what might be the performance of his career to date—which is saying something. Northup is neither a noble figurehead nor an object lesson, and Ejiofor brings to bear both the man’s seemingly unwilling strength and his fully human weakness. His bewilderment, his agony, his futile hopes are all present, sometimes in the same moment. It’s a riveting, honest portrayal of a man lost.
And he’s well supported by a note-perfect ensemble cast. (Well, almost—Brad Pitt’s role as an abolitionist is brief, but he manages to flatten it, turning the script’s somewhat-stylized dialogue into a didactic drawl.) Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o delivers a rocket of a performance as Patsey, a field slave under the eye of plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender, who embraces the twisted humanity of his most unabashed villain yet). Nyong’o has only a handful of lines, but her every look sears the lens, presenting a magnetic character whose tragedy is as desperate as Northup’s own. Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti and Adepero Oduye paint portraits in small roles. And despite having only a few minutes of screen time, Paul Dano delivers a knife of a performance as a slimy, tyrannical overseer; his mocking escape song to the newly-arrived slaves echoes coldly across a montage of plantation life.
This bleed of sound is everywhere, in fact; through working songs sung by slaves, haunting strings, scripture read by slaveowners or the sound of Northup’s feet in the mud during a harrowing near-lynching that plays out for several excruciating minutes, sound carries until the effect is nearly abstraction. It’s a haunting counterpoint to richly-shot landscapes and lush interiors. McQueen has a Malick sensibility about letting the frame breathe, whether watching baking cotton fields, grim parlors or crowded slave quarters. It’s discomfiting, at times, that so harrowing a movie should be so beautiful to look at, but McQueen’s eye for the actor is as keen as his sense of place. The movie never lets us forget who we’re watching and why. The light is warm, and the cane is greenest green, but the man in the frame doesn’t belong in it. No one does.
12 Years a Slave is a profoundly haunting and beautiful movie, a visual poem of isolation and despair and an unflinching look at the systemic dehumanization of slavery. It is, as it should be, hard to watch. It’s also a masterpiece.
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