12 Years a Slave is an expertly crafted, eerily beautiful film with a clear message and a lot of violence. If you're thinking lynchings, bloody backs and women wailing spirituals in the cotton fields while men fall down dead from exhaustion, you're right. There are times in the middle, with no real plot or story arc to hang our hat on, where our only respite is that, unlike the protagonist, we know from the title that there's a certain absolution we're working toward. And still you're thinking, just how long is 12 years anyway?
Director Steve McQueen's film is based on the real-life memoir of Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. He was born free in New York until he's drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery. The story begins swiftly enough. We see Northrup dressed in dapper, 1840s attire. One day he's a professional fiddler with a wife and children, and the next he wakes up in chains, stripped of his identity and every shred of the life he left behind. From there he finds himself in an impossible position: Solomon can live under the false identity of an illiterate slave named Platt, keep his head down and stay alive, or he can be foolhardy, assert his real identity and be swiftly and unceremoniously killed for his activism. It's not called "12 hours a slave," so we know which way he went.
The majority of the film's 134 minutes unfold at a plantation in Louisiana, headed by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has the unfortunate combination of being both merciless and cowardly. He prefers the company of a beautiful slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), which sends his wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), into a jealous frenzy with dangerous consequences. When a woman arrives at the plantation wailing for the two children she's just been forever separated from, Mistress Epps lets out a flippant, "Poor thing." The way this comment flirts with compassion only to be abandoned at the first convenience—she's worse than the men. Together, the Epps seem to hold hatred in their bodies like a sickness. In one scene, they rouse the slaves in the middle of the night and make them dance in the parlor. Solomon plays the fiddle with a look of resigned desperation, and you're thinking, why are they making them do this? What kind of sad ladder does a person's heart have to climb to manifest into such perverse expressions of power?
In 12 Years A Slave, it feels like God or the devil is lurking in the shadows, pressing down. McQueen was an artist before he made movies, and his craftsmanship shows in both the composition of the images and the order in which they're presented. The soundtrack is dark and aggressive. Always it sounds like a storm is on the way, but it never rains. A cotton field is both beautiful and feels like hell. The black people are in hell and so are the white people.
When McQueen likely wins an Oscar for best director in a few months, he will be the first black man to do so, and it will be well deserved. Of course the performances are all great. Ejiofor's face betrays a man who is scared and angry but doesn't want to let that on to his captors. Nyong'o as Patsey is doomed but eloquent. Fassbender's job is to show us what it looks like when a man has fully convinced himself that certain humans can be property. It's a problematic, heavy-handed belief that he must hold onto at all costs, lest he find out the truth about himself. Brad Pitt shows up in a pithy but much-needed scene as a contract worker who has come to his own conclusions about slavery and has the courage to act on those convictions.
To be clear, there's nothing new here; all of these themes have been explored in other films. Maybe you're thinking that we already have enough movies about the horrors of slavery, but don't forget that you were young once, too. Before they showed us Alex Haley's miniseries "Roots" in eighth grade civics class, I'd never seen slavery acted out like that before, and it made a profound impression on me. Just go check out the kind of casually racist things young people say on Twitter, and you'll see that this is a story worth retelling.
12 Years a Slave opens Fri., Nov. 15, at the Carmike 12.