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There is a prolonged, uncomfortable scene in the middle of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave in which the kidnapped and enslaved Solomon Northup is strung to a tree by a noose around his neck, struggling to stand on the muddied ground beneath him, half dead. We watch Northup’s frantic, helpless dance in ropes until the night falls, and it’s a stunning scene for its transmission of the agonizing realities of slavery through the perspective of the tortured captive. Though the scene lasts only a few minutes, it feels like hours, and the temptation to look away is profound. It serves as an ideal snapshot of McQueen’s powerful approach to the subject—simultaneously plaintive, experiential, and excruciating, the director takes a vice to the eyelids of his audience and holds them open to the horrors of slavery and cruelty in the primitive antebellum of American history.
If this feels like a story that’s been told, it hasn’t. Part of what attracted Brad Pitt’s Plan B production company to McQueen's vision was the fact that there had been no major Hollywood picture about slavery from an African-American point of view. “There was no humanity,” McQueen recently told The Hollywood Reporter of his initial inspiration. “They were cattle.” True to this statement, it is the film’s brutality that sears itself into the mind, marking it as an important addition to Hollywood's canon of slavery-era epics, from The Color Purple to Amistad. Based on the memoir Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a citizen of New York, kidnapped in Washington city in 1841, and rescued in 1853, from a cotton plantation near the Red River in Louisiana, the film retells the story of a black man born free in New York but kidnapped, sold into slavery, and held in bondage for more than a decade in Louisiana. McQueen cited the story as Pinocchio-like in its arc, and it is certainly true that the tale is imbued with a great amount of drama, straight from the source material. In the film’s central role, Chiwetel Ejiofor is electrifying as a man forced away from his family and left to navigate the social and behavioral carnage of slavery on a southern plantation, becoming engulfed in the horrors of his surroundings while never giving up hope of escape. As the educated Solomon Northup, forced to diminish his identity and go by the name “Plat,” Ejiofor gives a career-defining performance that will endure for generations and stick with audiences long after exiting the theater. Though some of the bigger-named actors will likely get audiences into their seats, it’s Ejiofor who commands the screen with the most star power, sure to resonate come award-season. As a twisted and brutal alcoholic and plantation owner, the always-brilliant Michael Fassbender expands on his repertoire of sick-minded characters portrayed with controlled charisma. Paul Dano gives a mirthful wickedness to a field slave driver in the early half of the film—another sparkling moment in what is unfolding as one of the most interesting resumes of any young actor working today. Saturday Night Live’s Taran Killam oddly expands on the creepy white man he portrays so often in jest with a sinister cameo, proving there may be more to look for from him in years to come. Alfre Woodard is unforgettable as a former slave who’s elevated her own status and played the social game enough to find a disheartening level of satisfaction in her station, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o shines as Patsy, a beautiful slave around whom a great amount of dramatic tension takes its toll. (Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti, and Quvenzhané Wallis also appear.)
Not for the weak of heart, 12 Years a Slave is an exceptional and dark confrontation with an American reality that’s yet to be exorcised or fully explored. A daring move for Pitt and his Plan B production company, an exceptional breakthrough for director McQueen and star Ejiofor, and a serious awards contender, the movie is a standout at the festival and will no doubt tear through theaters when it hits later this year. Production design by Adam Stockhausen and the score by Hans Zimmer add considerable tension, beauty, and depth to the effort. Worth the discomfort and the darkness for the light it ensnares and ultimately releases upon its audience in the wake of a truly inspiring tale.
Images courtesy New York Film Festival