With just two art-house films in five years, Hunger and Shame, Steve McQueen has moved to the front ranks of world cinema. A meteoric rise, certainly, but a deserving one nonetheless. Shame and Hunger highlighted McQueen’s preoccupations with a rigorous, austere formalism and the extremes of physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering, either willfully chosen as part of an ideological campaign for martyrdom (Hunger) or unwillingly, the result of unspecified childhood traumas (Shame). Unsurprisingly, McQueen’s thematic and narrative preoccupations have led to accusations of audience-alienating austerity and an obsession with masochism, but those criticisms betray a fundamental misunderstanding of McQueen’s intentions as a filmmaker. He’s an exploitative, sensationalistic provocateur by intent or by result, but an irony-free, deeply humanistic filmmaker. His third film, 12 Years a Slave, a scrupulously faithful adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s little-known 1853 memoir, will do little to dispel those criticisms, but it’s also his most accessible and quite possibly a (near) masterpiece.
12 Years a Slave opens sometime closer to the end of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) bondage than the beginning. He stands in a field with other slaves, of them, but slightly apart, a subtle visual composition that highlights Northrup’s uniqueness as a free man kidnapped into slavery. By then, however, it’s clear Northrup, a man of few, careful words, has, if not reconciled himself to the life of a slave, then made the necessary adjustments to his physical appearance and demeanor to survive. We don’t know it yet, but the opening scene occurs not at the Louisiana plantation where Northrup suffers the most physically, emotionally, and mentally, but during a brief respite when Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Northrup’s chief tormentor, sends Northrup and several other slaves to work at a nearby plantation. That brief glimpse foreshadows, however obliquely, the worst that’s yet to come for Northrup and, by extension (admittedly in a limited way), for the audience.
12 Years a Slave flashes back to Northrup in the days and weeks before two men kidnap him and sell him into slavery. Born a free man, Northrup had everything an African-American man could have wanted in pre-Civil War America: a wife and two children, an honest living as a violinist (among other things), and the commensurate social status and standing of a man of property in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The white men in his social class treated him with respect and generosity, not condescension or contempt. When Northrup enters a shop with his wife and two children, the white shop owner greets and treats him with the deference due to any other customer. Another African-American man, possibly a slave, possibly an indentured servant new to the town, reacts with awe and astonishment at the sight of a free African-American man.
Two men, Hamilton (Taran Killam) and Brown (Scoot McNairy), entice Northrup with the offer of a well-paying gig as a violinist in Washington, D.C., seemingly perfect timing given that Northrup’s wife and children are away during the same period. At the end of the gig, Hamilton and Brown ply Northrup with food, wine, and seemingly innocuous conversation. Northrup awakens the next morning, not just hung over, but in chains in a dark, airless dungeon, stripped of his name and his identity. Northrup’s kidnappers ignore his protests, beating him repeatedly. It’s the first, but not the last time that McQueen unsparingly lingers on physical violence, not out of an exploitative, sensationalistic impulse as other filmmakers might (and have), but out of a desire to show, without flinching, without turning away, the degrading, dehumanizing effects of slavery.
On route to a slave market in New Orleans, Northrup attempts to convince two other men to rise up against their captors. Like every plan for 12 long years, everything goes sideways, leaving Northrup in the hands of a slave trader, Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti), in New Orleans. Northrup, both victim and witness to the cruelties of slavery, watches as Freeman cruelly separates a young woman, Eliza (Adepero Oduye), from her two children. He’s first sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist preacher and slave owner. On the surface, Ford seems to have moral qualms about slavery, but those qualms don’t stop him from owning slaves or allowing his overseers to mistreat them (or worse). Ford also recognizes that Northrup isn’t what he appears, but refuses to investigate Northrup’s real identity or risk losing his identity.
Northrup almost loses his life when he runs afoul of one of Ford’s overseers, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), a mean, spiteful man. Threatened by Northrup’s intelligence and education, Tibeats attempts to lynch Northrup. McQueen holds the camera on a gasping, desperate Northrup for what seems like hours not minutes. Plantation life continues unchanged or unchecked around him. Once again, McQueen confronts the audience with slavery in all its horror and brutality, daring them, daring us, to look away. Only one other slave breaks away from her routine to offer him water. Ford eventually arrives and saves Northrup, but seemingly concerned for Northrup’s life, he sells Northrup to a local cotton farmer, Epps, widely infamous for his cruel, vicious treatment of slaves at his plantation.
Epps embodies slavery at its most ruthless and sadistic. He’s a rage-filled alcoholic prone to waking the slaves in the middle of the night and forcing them to dance for him. His “favorite,” Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong’o, revelatory), suffers the most, sexually assaulted and beaten regularly by a capricious Epps and cruelly mistreated by Epps’ bitterly jealous wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson). Northrup can do nothing except bear witness and survive; most of all simply survive and hope. That hope appears in the form of a progressive, Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Bass personifies a Great White Hope (of sorts) and in a tense exchange between Bass and an uncomprehending Epps, the only time 12 Years a Slave slips into Spielbergian didacticism. It’s a minor misstep, easily forgivable when viewed in the context of everything that preceded the conversation and everything that follows.
McQueen never slips into easy exploitation or overt sentimentality, a testament to his meticulous, formal control over the medium and his carefully chosen collaborators behind the camera (cinematography, sound design, score) and in front of the camera (note-perfect performances from the cast). Awards – or at the very least awards nominations – will surely follow over the next few months, but that’s a conversation for another time. For now, it’s more than enough to simply acknowledge that 12 Years a Slave isn’t just an example of the medium at its best, but essential cinema, a necessary corrective to the too long absence of slavery as a subject fit for thoughtful exploration on film.