TELLURIDE, Colo. – After its premiere screening at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival Friday evening, it goes without saying that no narrative film or TV program has ever depicted the sheer brutality and horror that was American slavery as Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” does. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, “12 Years” is a powerful drama driven by McQueen’s bold direction and the finest performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s career.
The film begins about halfway through Northup’s ordeal as he finds himself cutting sugarcane and sharing a floor to sleep on with countless other slaves. It then quickly jumps back to his idyllic life in Saratoga, New York where he appears to have made a living as a violin player. While his wife and two children head out of town for a few weeks (Quvenzhané Wallis briefly appears as his daughter), Northup (Ejiofor) makes the mistake of partnering with two men who present themselves as circus promoters (Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy) for a few performances culminating in Washington, D.C. At that time the nation’s capital was not a safe area for free men of color because it bordered the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. After a night of celebrating with his supposed business partners, Northup wakes up to find himself in a slave pen shackled in chains. The horror of this situation is immediate to both Northup and the audience. His predicament becomes even more painful to watch after he is sold to a Louisiana plantation owner and freedom is now thousands of miles away.
Northup’s story and the brutality he witnesses during his time as a slave would be tough viewing for anyone, but that’s McQueen’s greatest strength and what truly sets “12 Years” apart. McQueen has no fear in depicting the true savagery thrust upon American slaves by their owners. He won’t flinch in holding on the image, even if it’s graphically disturbing. Slavery was an inhumane evil that McQueen refuses to turn away from. The fact McQueen makes this creative decision early on allows one heartbreaking whipping scene near the end of the movie to effectively become the picture’s climax. The scene is filmed completely in one shot allowing the tension to build as you realize there will be no escape for the victim or the viewer. It’s obviously tough to watch, but also brilliantly realized. As producer and supporting cast member Brad Pitt noted in the film’s post-screening Q&A, the film is so intense it makes you “want to take a group walk around the block.” And, yes, that’s a good thing.
For all McQueen’s considerable skills as a filmmaker, “12 Years” would not succeed without Ejiofor’s incredible turn. In this day in age it may be hard to believe why a free man wouldn’t run for his life or fight to his last breath in Northup’s circumstances. Ejiofor makes history palatable as he captures Northup’s desire to survive as well as his despair as the weight of his plight increases over time.
Michael Fassbender and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o are the picture’s two other standout turns. Fassbender is essentially the embodiment of evil as Northup’s last slave owner, Edwin Epps. McQueen’s frequent muse (“Hunger,” “Shame”) is relentless in depicting the inhumanity in Epps, but expertly manages to avoid making Epps one note. Instead of pretending there is some good in Epps, Fassbender and McQueen provide him a range of combustible madness.
Epps primary victim is Patsey, a young slave girl played by Nyong’o. As Patsey suffers from Epps’ affections, insecurities and jealousy, Nyong’o eloquently convinces us why her character sees death as her only viable escape. It’s the film’s breakthrough performance and may find Nyong’o making her way to the Dolby Theater next March.
McQueen is also blessed by fantastic small performances by a number of great actors including Paul Dano as an insecure overseer on Northup’s first plantation, Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s sympathetic (to a degree) first owner, Paul Giamatti as a cold-minded slave auctioneer, Alfre Woodward as a kept plantation owner’s wife and Pitt as Northup’s eventual salvation. Sarah Paulson deserves special recognition for superbly avoiding cliches in the familiar role of a jealous plantation owner’s wife.
“12 Years” also features gorgeous cinematography by another longtime McQueen collaborator, Sean Bobbitt, and one of Hans Zimmer’s more moving scores in some time.
One minor criticism of the film is that it shockingly fails to convey the passage of time during Northrup’s forced slavery. This isn’t to suggest McQueen needed title cards dictating individual years, but when your film is titled “12 Years A Slave” it might make a bit of sense to communicate the weight of the period to your audience.
Most importantly, however, long after its initial run in theaters and years after it earns whatever awards come its way, “12 Years,”” like “Lincoln,” “The Hurt Locker” or “Milk,” will have an enduring legacy as an educational tool for new generations. And, frankly, that might be the most satisfying reward someone like McQueen or Ejiofor could ask for.
“12 Years A Slave” will continue to screen at the Telluride Film Festival and have it’s official world premiere at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in limited release on Oct. 18.