In the year 1841, Solomon Northrop (Chewetel Ejiofor) is living in Saratoga, NY with his wife and two children. He is a violinist, an upstanding member of the community. He is not completely impervious to the nearby horrors of slavery—a curious slave sees Solomon shopping in a general store, wanders in, only to be excoriated by his master—but it’s something happening to other men, in other parts of the country, less educated men, not men like him.
One fateful day, he agrees to take a job as a traveling musician, but it’s all a ruse. He’s drugged and sold into slavery. Solomon’s hell is not just that he’s been enslaved, but that his erudition, his very status as a free man, must be kept secret from his masters, who will sooner beat him to death than allow him to put on supposed airs. Against all instinct, he must learn to somehow bide his time, blend in, while secretly searching for a way to reclaim his freedom.
Yes, the film is based on a true story.
When I was a young girl I saw the wide-reaching and educational mini series Roots and it had a profound effect on me, as it did for many of my generation. But in a way, by focusing on the plight of a single man, 12 Years a Slave packs even more of a visceral wallop.
Director Steve McQueen gets in close—at times impossibly, unflinchingly close—so that we feel every threat, every humiliation along with Solomon. And Ejiofor is just remarkable as a man whose survival instinct is strong enough to see that he must suppress his pride and his anger and simply . . . wait.
In the film, Solomon has two masters. The first, named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is the “good” master—at least he doesn’t treat his slaves with cruelty. There’s compassion, although it’s the kind of compassion one might have for a beloved pet, not a fellow human being.
When he arrives at Ford’s plantation, Solomon watches, with horror, as a mother (Kelsey Scott) is separated from her two small children. She is wailing, inconsolable. Ford’s wife (Liza J. Bennet) observes her with mild pity, then says something along the lines of: “Poor thing. But she’ll forget about her children soon.”
The idea that this grief sick woman would ever “forget” her children is absurd—but one of the film’s key observations about human nature. This is how people could justify their own inhumanity—by seeing the slaves as less than human, somehow less capable of things like maternal love.
One of Ford’s plantation hands (Paul Dano), is threatened by Solomon’s obvious intelligence and the favor he has managed to curry with Ford. It all spills out in a vicious assault that leaves Solomon with no choice but to defend himself. As punishment, he is strung up to be lynched, but given a last minute reprieve. So instead of being hung, he’s left dangling, too high to plant his feet, two tip-toes dancing on the ground his only means to stay alive, for hour after hour, as life on the plantation continues around him apace. It is truly one of the most chilling images I’ve ever seen on film.
After that, staying on Ford’s plantation is no longer tenable, so Solomon is sold to another slave owner, Epps (Michael Fassbender)—and, inconceivably, his life is about to get even worse. Because Epps is not just your garden variety slave owner, he’s a full on sociopath, with a quick temper, a fragile ego, and an obsessive and dangerous lust for his prize slave Patsey (an astonishing Lupita Nyong’o). Epps’ wife (excellent Sarah Paulson) is aware of this dangerous obsession and, instead of seeing this poor girl as a victim of her husband’s rape, perceives her as a harpy and a threat.
We also meet the cynical Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the mistress of a plantation owner, who has managed a comfortable life as a kept woman, as all around her, fellows slaves suffer ongoing trials. The film doesn’t judge Mistress Shaw, but merely sees her as another adaptor and survivor.
My admiration for this truly great film (and current Oscar frontrunner) is slightly mired by two things. For one, I’m not sure if we needed to feel every lash of the whip on Solomon or Patsey’s back, or if we needed to see the horror of every objectification and assault etched on their faces. (As I said, McQueen never met a close-up he didn’t love.) Sometimes, suggestion is even more powerful than representation.
Also, I was more interested in the compromised immorality of Cumberbatch’s Ford than the full on sociopathy of Fassbender’s Epps (the banality of evil is always more intriguing to me). We spend more time with Epps than Ford—I would’ve personally preferred the opposite.
But what the film may lack in restraint it more than makes up for in stirring performances, haunting imagery, and an unforgettable story of perseverance, human dignity, and survival.
12 Years a Slave is best film about the tragedy of American slavery I’ve ever seen. Or to put it another way: It’s the worst film about the tragedy of American slavery I’ve ever seen.