Imagine waking tomorrow shackled in chains and left alone in a dark cell. Surely a mistake has been made, something easily remedied by talking to someone. But what if no one came and your cries fell silent?
Solomon Northup, a free man captured and sent into slavery, and the author of the 1853 book 12 Years a Slave, woke up to such a nightmare. While living in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1841 with his wife and children, he traveled with friends to Washington, D.C., to play the violin in a traveling circus.
His false friends drugged him and then sold him into slavery. He found himself the next morning sailing south to be disposed of in a slave market. His protestations were met with whips and beatings.
Steve McQueen directed 12 Years a Slave, based on John Ridley’s adaptation of Northup’s book. McQueen, a British native, never lets his viewers relax. He drags Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) through every imaginable torture, beating and humiliation.
Northup, renamed Platt by one of his proclaimed “masters,” retains his humanity even while stifling his higher learning and clinging to his dignity. When counseled by another slave on how to survive, Northup replies: “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”
Northup proves a sensitive man, one who refuses the request of another slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, in her feature debut), who comes to him and asks if he will drown her in the river. “Do what I ain’t got the strength to do myself,” she pleads.
Northup becomes the property of a relatively good man (Benedict Cumberbatch), only to be shuffled off to a cruel owner after rebelling against the physical abuse by a cruel overseer (Paul Dano). The new plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), proves a sadistic brute who rapes the women and whose cruelty is only surpassed by that of his wife (Sarah Paulson).
No film could convey the realities of slavery. But 12 Years, hard to watch and harder to stomach, attempts to render cinematically not only the physical tortures but also the humiliating dehumanization experienced by slaves.
The film’s provocativeness should not overshadow its fine execution, with McQueen showing a rhythmic storytelling progression. He uses Sean Bobbitt’s cinematography to full effect, often combining with Hans Zimmer’s evocative musical score to heighten dramatic effect.
And, among many in a fine all-around cast, Ejiofor, as Northup, turns in a passionate yet unaffected performance, one as commanding as any seen this year.
12 Years a Slave
Rated R, 133 minutes.
Opens Friday at regional theaters.