“12 Years A Slave” tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who- in 1841- is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It’s a harrowing tale with many moments that are hard to watch, yet it’s told in such an engrossing way- with no frills, and hardly any “Hollywood” touches- that I was too riveted to look away.
Director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) tells the story with a very sure hand, never shying away from his attention to detail, and- at times- you can almost feel his hands on your head as if to say, “Don’t turn away. You need to see this. This happened.” Indeed, the film is brutal and unrelenting. The situations depicted are sure to haunt anyone with a sense of empathy.
The pacing of the movie feels like a character in and of itself because, while certain things occur in a startlingly abrupt and sudden fashion, there are also long expanses of time focused on Northup’s struggles. McQueen uses this stop & go flow of the story to great effect. At times, it serves as a potent reminder of how we take the immediacy of things for granted these days. One scene in particular, where Northup is under great physical duress and someone says they’ll fetch the man that can help him- which ends up taking hours and is practically the difference between life and death- really gave me pause. In an age where people will often get antsy that so-and-so didn’t respond to a text message within ten minutes, this was a potent reminder of how patient we all had to be not so long ago in human history. Throughout Northup’s ordeal, as a whole, nothing good ever came quickly.
The performances in this film, across the board, are impeccable. The cast includes a cavalcade of known actors who pop in and out, some in very unglamorous roles, and many of whom only appear for a scene or two before disappearing into the fabric of the story. But the true revelation is Chiwetel Ejiofor. As Solomon Northup, Ejiofor carries the film on his shoulders. In his eyes you can feel every ounce of despair, every glimmer of hope, and an internal life that needs no voice-over to communicate the inner monologue. It’s all there. He lays himself emotionally bare in front of the camera, raw for the world to see. But perhaps what’s most impressive is the restraint he shows, both as an actor, and as a character. For Northup, keeping his mouth shut and not letting on what’s truly going on was how he survived, and for Ejiofor as an actor, it’s how he’s able to draw the viewer in without pushing them away with melodrama.
Speaking of melodrama, it would’ve been very easy to milk this story for all it was worth. But McQueen clearly steered the production away from anything excessively gooey or over-dramatic. He goes for stark realism, and lets the horrors of the situations depicted tell the story without having to crank up any false sentimentality. Unlike, say, last year’s “Les MisÃ©rables” where Tom Hooper’s use of extreme close-ups had an off-putting effect because the actors were all directed to over-emote into a camera that’s 6 inches from their noses, McQueen had his actors underplay their reactions during close-ups. In doing so, he allows the subtleties of a slight lip quiver, the twitch of an eyelid, or a slight gasp convey everything that needs to be said without trying too hard to manipulate the viewer.
The other acting standout here is Michael Fassbender, in one of his showiest roles to date. As the alcoholic, “God fearing,” lustful lech Edwin Epps, Fassbender is given a lot of scenery to chew. In his third collaboration with McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”), it’s clear the two have built a great relationship- which is something I witnessed firsthand when I spent a few days on the set of “Shame” a few years ago. They’ve developed a real shorthand. McQueen lets Fassbender run free here, and the German-Irish actor uses the breathing room to create a character that is both larger than life and quietly, desperately lost.
Special recognition should also be given to composer Hans Zimmer, who turns in a very nuanced score here. It’s a very varied work that shifts from quiet violins that underscore the dramatic moments to booming, mechanical tones that emphasize a man being broken away from the life he knew, to ambient, atmospheric sounding melodies. To his credit, I actually had no idea he scored the film until I saw his name in the closing credits, which speaks to the anonymity of his work in this picture.
By the end of the film, I could sense the audience and I were all ready to beg for a happy ending. Surely, we all knew that Northup eventually found his freedom and was able to write the book that the film is based on, so we knew it was coming. We needed it. After two hours of this brutal journey, we had “earned” it. But even here, McQueen avoids the Hollywood treatment. Without spoiling anything, I can say that the end is handled in a way that’s as organic, bare, and emotional as the rest of the film.
All in all, this film was an experience. It took me for a ride through some dark places I wasn’t sure I even wanted to see, but I now feel all the richer for having done so. If I had one note, it would be that early on a better sense of the passage of time might have been wise. Reason being that it’s slightly jarring to see Northup shift from trying to fight against this unjust situation, to being somewhat accepting of his new fate. As the film goes on, you realize that time is passing at a more accelerated rate than you might have noticed, but that early transition for Northup might have benefited from a “six months later” title card or something. Again, it’s only a minor quibble and one that wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
I highly recommend this film. It’s an important story of survival against terrible oppression, and a true testament to the human spirit. Just be warned that nothing will be sugar-coated, and any moments of levity are counterbalanced by something twice as terrible, so expect an arresting experience at the theater. It reminded me of when I saw “The Pianist” in theaters and felt my heart in my throat for most of it.