12 Years A Slave is one of *those* movies. One of those movies you want to see, yet dread to watch, concerning truths you know must be faced, and would perhaps prefer not to think about. It’s stark, and beautiful, and unflinchingly brutal. Director Steve McQueen has made two other movies, Hunger and Shame. In both cases, he revealed not only an artists’s eye, but the ability to coax superior turns from his muse, fellow Irishman Michael Fassbender. In 12 Years A Slave, McQueen also showcases soulful performances from Chiwetel Ejiofor (Talk to Me) and Lupita Nyong’o, a stage actress making her feature film debut.
!2 Years A Slave is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup. Northup, a highly educated professional living in upstate New York, was kidnapped and sold into slavery. This makes the movie particularly accessible to a modern audience, since the protagonist wasn’t born on a plantation or subjected to the social conventions of life in the antebellum south. Solomon is like one of us, accustomed to earning his own living and being treated with respect. Finding himself in chains, he’s horrified to realize if he means to survive, and perhaps get back to his wife and children, he must never reveal that he can read and write, much less his true identity as a freeman. Of course, this proves almost impossible, given that his captors are ignorant and fatuous as well as cruel. An altercation with an insecure, uneducated overseer rips Solomon from his relatively safe position with Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a “good” slaver who isn’t vicious or physically violent … yet has no moral qualms buying human beings. Master Ford sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Fassbender), and on Epps’s cotton plantation, Solomon’s circumstances go from bad to incomprehensibly worse.
Epps, an alcoholic, is terrifyingly “hands-on” when it comes to his human chattel; it’s clear he relishes shifting from benefactor to tormentor and back again in sudden drunken lurches. Of particular fascination to him is Patsy (Nyong’o), his most talented cotton-picker, whom Epps calls “queen of the plantation.” Of course, after sundown, Epps creeps into the slave cabin to use Patsy another way. The on-screen rape is brilliantly written, acted, and shot. It’s a triumph for McQueen that he can present something so terrible and make it feel absolutely authentic, yet not a whit exploitative or unnecessary. And Fassbender’s performance is probably his finest to date.
I won’t spoil the film by telling you more. if you value movies about history, or social issues, or if you simply adore superb acting and direction, go see 12 Years A Slave.