Easily the most powerful, compelling, devastating, and just plain blunt film about slavery ever made, Steve McQueen’s adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, 12 Years a Slave is a raw and searing indictment. it plumbs the depths of that Lincoln and Django Unchained only skimmed.
Northup’s dark odyssey is a harrowing one: A free man in Saratoga, New York, he lived as a husband, father, and talented violinist until he was tricked by two white men into visiting Washington, D.C., for a series of performances. Once there, he soon finds himself stripped of his papers and briefly imprisoned before being smuggled out of the city, renamed “Platt”, and sold at auction. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is first sent to work for a relatively kind plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But following an ugly episode with an overseer (Paul Dano), he is traded to a new owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). A drunk and a sadist, Epps is a walking nightmare of a human being; Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) is, in her own fashion, just as malicious, harboring a vicious jealousy for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave whom Epps exploits as a sexual plaything.
Ejiofor has carved out a performance that will likely define his career. Largely under-used over the years, he’s given memorable performances in films as far afield as Dirty Pretty Things, Serenity, and Kinky Boots. Here, he dominates some truly challenging material that would elude most others; he delivers the period dialogue with effortless cadences, and just as easily speaks volumes in lingering close-ups of his haunting facial expressions. Fassbender also rises to the occasion, plumbing the weaknesses that define Epps, rather than just playing him as a stock villain.
There are a number of strong supporting performances throughout, including the aforementioned Nyong’o and Cumberbatch as well as Paul Giamatti as a slave trader, and Alfre Woodard as a former slave who enjoys a life a privilege with her former owner. Brad Pitt puts in a cameo as a sympathetic Canadian laborer, a thankless deus ex machina role that allows for what can loosely be considered a happy ending.
12 Years a Slave represents a quantum leap forward for McQueen, who previous films (Hunger and Shame) were tense but emotionally remote drama. He’s more ambitious here, and he and screenwriter John Ridley do not shy aware from depicting the ugly details or positing the question of how such cruelty and brutality could be condoned, much less tolerated.