Opening directly onto a sugar plantation as the camera brushes its way through tall canes to reveal a group of slaves being shown how to cut sugar cane, we then cut back to the chronological beginning. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man with a wife and two children living in Saratoga, New York, and while he can’t vote he seems to enjoy many of the luxuries of life white men are afforded as well. Solomon is then hired as a violinist in Washington D.C. by two witty artisan-types, who pay well for his services. But one night after some celebratory drinks, Solomon awakens chained to the wall in a dark room within sight of the nation’s capital.
Solomon is coerced, with the assistance of a bat that splinters over his back, into changing his clothes and following other previously free black men, women, and children into the shadowy hold of a ship. Shipped down the river to New Orleans, Solomon’s name is changed to Platt and sold through a slave auction to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford is a man of comparative generosity for his time and place, but it is rightly pointed out to Solomon that his kindness is merely a form of toting on his prized possession, his slave with intellect and musical talent. Animosity grows between Northup and Tibeats (Paul Dano), one of the overseers on the plantation, climaxing in an intense and prolonged scene of near-death.
Chiwetel Ejiofor, a British actor, is absolutely terrific as Solomon Northup in a performance more evocative than any I’ve seen in a while. Ejiofor’s physicality and spot-on emotionality are just right for Solomon, an educated slave who puts his head down in determination and survives many an unthinkable situation. Eijiofor’s eyes alone capture the suppressed anger, wild confusion, and deep sadness of the character. Steve McQueen’s favorite collaborator Michael Fassbender is also electrifying as the malevolent slave owner Edwin Epps. He adds a depth to the character when most would play him as two-dimensionally all evil. Fassbender’s performance instead eats at the sole of the character, exuding the subtleties of disorientation, lust, and furious anger. In addition to these two actors, who frame the majority of the film in their polar dimensions, Sarah Paulsen is malicious as Mistress Epps, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o gives a terrifyingly mystical performance as a slave who becomes a tortured victim of both Epps and his wife.
I've heard many say that 12 Years a Slave is the Schindler’s List for American slavery for its forced confrontation with the worst of humanity. While this does make a great comparison as both are artistic yet brutally real retellings of horrendous times and places, Steve McQueen has crafted a masterpiece in its own right that should be noticed as such. His direction here is less art-house than his previous works, and in its faithful following of Northup’s autobiography we are presented with a truly masterful grasp on the effect of cinematic storytelling. This film hits audiences like a punch to the gut, and it leaves a mark that stirs at the back of your mind days after seeing it. Shot by an artist with an eye for beauty, 12 Years a Slave depicts the indescribable tragedy of slavery in all its brutal truth.