‘12 Years a Slave’
The opening scenes of “12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen’s searing adaptation of the true-life account of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, tell you all you need to know about the cinematic experience you’re about to have.
A lush, unnerving tableau of a group of black men being taught to cut sugar cane reminds viewers of McQueen’s gift for evoking atmosphere, whereas a scene that follows – in which the protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), attempts to write a letter home with the juice of a few berries – brings viewers into intimate contact with a place and time too often rendered as distant and abstract.
Intense, unflinching, stark in its simplicity and often boldly radical in its use of image, sound and staging, “12 Years a Slave” in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine – if not cauterize – America’s primal wound.
But it’s also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t just a cathartic experience that happens to be an astonishing formal achievement: It works its emotional power precisely because it’s so elegantly constructed, from the inside out.
From those unsettling initial scenes, “12 Years a Slave” flashes back to 1841, when Northup, a relatively prosperous musician, is living with his wife and children in Saratoga, N.Y. While his family is out of town, Northup is introduced to two self-described talent scouts, who assure him he can get good work as a fiddler with a traveling circus. After a trip to Washington and a night of wine and dining, Northup wakes up in a holding cell, shackled by chains and enshrouded in heavy, unremitting silence.
What follows is a journey of unimaginable suffering and horror, a sort of anti-picaresque during which Northup is beaten for insisting that he’s a free man, then bought and sold and bought again, finally landing at a plantation owned by the merciless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Much of “12 Years a Slave” centers on Northup’s relationship with Epps, who is smart enough to know he should be threatened by his enslaved servant’s superior intellect and sense of culture – and who processes those conflicting feelings the same way he accommodates his sexual attraction to a field worker named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o): with escalating and increasingly psychotic violence. Epps’ methods of annihilation extend to the subtle as well, such as when he casually leans on his servants, as if they’re pieces of furniture.
But “12 Years a Slave,” which McQueen directed from a courtly, admirably economical script by John Ridley, isn’t content simply to be an index of human cruelty. Rather, the film offers a panorama, not just of the black experience in the antebellum South – from the inconsolable wailing of a woman separated from her children to a former slave contentedly ensconced as the wife of her former owner – but of the varieties of racist pathology.
As he did in “Hunger” and “Shame,” McQueen doesn’t go in for a lot of flash edits or self-conscious visual flourishes to put viewers at ease; rather, he invites the audience to sit with him as he gazes, amazed, at man’s inhumanity to man, an unnerving encounter that is heightened by a adamantly nonperiod musical score by Hans Zimmer.