Solomon Northup was an educated husband and father, a talented violinist and a free man in his early 30s when, in 1841, he lured from Saratoga, New York to Washington, was kidnapped, sold into slavery, shuttled down to New Orleans and is thereafter brutalized, humiliated and forced to work. Not only did he lose every vestige of the life he knew, he was coerced into denying his identity. 12 Years a Slave, adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s bestselling memoir and directed by British gallery artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen, appropriately depicts the beginnings of Northup’s journey as a nightmare: he is misled and drugged; he wakes in shackles; he’s informed that he isn’t who he knows himself to be but rather a runaway from Georgia; he’s viciously beaten for no coherent reason. From this point the film becomes a sort of perversion of the picaresque, with Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) being moved from one plantation to the next, at one point indentured to a benevolent master (Benedict Cumberbatch), at another to an alcoholic sadist (Michael Fassbender), never knowing if salvation may suddenly appear out of the blue or forever elude him until he is either worked or beaten to death.
McQueen’s third feature is less formalist than its predecessors. With its somewhat more conventional coverage, litany of star cameos and sweeping Hans Zimmer score, the film, which counts Brad Pitt amongst its producers—and famous bit-players—incorporates the tropes of the Hollywood historical prestige picture, though it does so with more austerity and less sentiment than anything from Steven Spielberg, whose own slavery epic, Amistad (1997), isn’t among the director’s renown works. I came to the 12 Years a Slave with some skepticism. The phony bathos and shameless showmanship of McQueen’s Shame (2011) prompted me to wonder whether or not I really did like Hunger (2008), his debut. In any case, both of those films trade in suffering as spectacle, and in this regard 12 Years a Slave—which features a protracted, painterly, unbroken shot in which Northup dangles from a noose, his toes tapping desperately on the muddy earth that can’t quite relieve him, while his fellow slaves going about their business for fear of meeting the same fate—is hardly a departure. How could it be? The eerie, awful beauty of this shot doesn’t mitigate the moral imperative to make this nadir in Northup’s story as grueling to behold as possible. It’s just that McQueen’s realization draws as much attention to his impeccable craft and cool audacity as it does to its horror.
Whatever my reservations—and whatever yours may be—I hope it’s clear that 12 Years a Slave is about as close to compulsory viewing as any movie can be. The question, raised in some recent essays prompted by the film’s release and immediate acclaim, as to whether atrocities such as slavery or the Holocaust can or should be the subject of movies isn’t very helpful when trying to reckon with the work itself. See the film, struggle with it, admire it, if you will. Remember that Northup’s is just one story among millions. And let’s indeed celebrate the fact that the wonderful Ejiofor has finally found the breakthrough role he’s so long deserved. Given the nature of the material, his performance is one of immense, nuanced restraint. The smartest thing he and McQueen do in bringing Northup’s story to cinematic life is to leave the fathomless emotions largely to the audience.