What is the cracking point of the human psyche?
Visual artist turned filmmaker Steve McQueen has explored the answer to that question with unflinching honesty in three sober-minded dramas: Hunger (2008), Shame (2011), and now 12 Years A Slave. Based on the real-life account of Solomon Northup, a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the middle of the 19th century, 12 Years A Slave is McQueen’s most piercing, most distressing, and least visually distinctive film to date.
Stripping away any kind of pretense to objectivity, McQueen invariably keeps the action within the frame, which gives the story a subliminally documentary feel, and also makes it painful to watch when brutal punishment is meted out to enslaved humans. We are meant to bear witness to their suffering, and to observe their mental anguish, and to empathize with their emotional agony. Or we can look away so as to minimize the possibility of fellow feeling, or become infuriated that past national atrocities are not allowed to rest, perhaps similar to how modern-day Germans might react to seeing one more picture about the Nazis.
Yet there is no shortage of pride in the U.S about past triumphs, no matter how far distant from the 21st century, and the subjugation of a minority race by a majority race has never been confined to the U.S. or to the 19th century. Truly, 12 Years A Slave probes an issue that is universal: How did such cruel, inhumane behavior become the law of the land? And how might it happen again?
On that score, the film, written by John Ridley, is entirely convincing in presenting the brutal realities of slavery, as experiencing in a horrible waking nightmare for a dozen unrelenting years by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). When he awakens, chained, he cannot believe what has happened to him. One day he was living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York, and then two men offered him the opportunity to earn money for his violin-playing abilities. He toured and played with them for two weeks, and at the conclusion of the trip, they got him drunk and sold him.
He is packaged up and delivered to a slave trader (Paul Gimatti), who prepares his haul and shines them up for display in his home as though they were products in a store; some are forced to stand naked, others must fiddle on demand; all must know their place. Solomon is sold along with Eliza (Adepero Oduye), whose children are torn away from her, to a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in the bayou country of Louisiana. Ford is kindly, as far as a genteel Southern plantation owner can be in that time and place. Solomon’s dignity and education shines through the degradation he must endure, which makes him a natural enemy to Tibeats (Paul Dano), who glories in his evil and feelings of superiority.
Events transpire that prompt Ford to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), whose villainy is far more complex and diabolical than the simple-minded Tibeats. Solomon’s sorrowful situation is compared and contrasted with that of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an incredible hard worker on the cotton plantation who is a favorite of her despicable owner. Epps is goaded along by his nasty-minded shrew of a wife (Sarah Paulson), whose repulsive behavior is accompanied by a disgusting, self-righteous attitude. Incredibly, Mistress Epps is jealous of Patsey, because her husband gives her attention that he refuses her. Later, Brad Pitt makes an appearance as a hired hand who lends Solomon a listening ear.
Make no mistake, these are evil people, but it must also be acknowledged that they were in no way atypical; they were products of their upbringing, environment, and personal, unquestioning, unthinking inclinations. How, then, does Solomon survive? That is a question that the film tackles head-on, and it is one that must be addressed by everyone, sooner or later.
The film opens on Friday, October 25, at Angelika Dallas, Angelika Plano, Cinemark USA Cedar Hill, and AMC The Parks at Arlington 18.