Based on the memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the tragic true tale of a violinist from New York who was kidnapped and sent to the south to be sold as a slave. Throughout the film, we see his ordeal as property to a morally empty market and his eventually release.
In this film, the extraordinary man is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He is a humble family man from New York. In these days, his one extraordinary trait is his skills with a violin, which makes him kind of famous. It’s his fame that attracts the attention of two men claiming to be part of a circus. After a night of drinking, he wakes up to find himself in chains. Once a free man, Solomon is beaten into assuming the identity of Platt, a runaway slave from Georgia.
As many would expect, there are many brutal beatings in this film. The film can’t accurately portray Northup’s story without them. Director Steve McQueen is the perfect director for this film. He is not one to look away from the most uncomfortable scene, whether it is an Irish prisoner starving himself to death in Hunger or a sex addict’s painful need for satisfaction in Shame. In this film, the whippings and beatings are so long and vicious they are almost impossible to watch. Through it all, Ejiofor balances the line between an everyman in fear and a survivor planning his escape. His empathetic face reveals his inner struggle and cautious hope.
At the same time, he exposes the system as surrealistic. The scene of the sold slave feels like a Monty Python skit with southerners examining nude men as if they were shopping for a couch. In a way, the film blurs the line between cruelty and absurdity. This line is embodied by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), an alcoholic low grade plantation owner. He seems to regard himself as his slave’s best friend, at one point bringing them to his home for an insane waltz. Even when he’s interrogating Solomon, he’s wrapping his arms around him like they’re bros. What is interesting about Fassbender performance is it shows the destructive effects slavery has on the abuser. He seems aware that slavery is unnatural but lives in such denial it has built a weight of self-loathing inside him. Even when he whips one slave until her back ribs are exposed, he does it under the pressure of his prim and proper wife (Sarah Paulson) who may be more sadistic than him.
Despite the cruelties, the environment is beautifully shot with gorgeous summer skies and white cotton fields. In a way, the beauty of the outside world makes the cruelty feel more unnatural. Most notable is a scene where Solomon is left hanging on a noose, only touching on the ground with the tips of his toes, for a long period. Adding to the uncomfortableness is the beauty of the field and the other slaves casually working around him.
This is a film t most can only watch once. But just watching it once is worth it. Not just for historic value but as a catharsis for one of the darkest moments in human history. This film and Northup’s memoirs does the victims a great service by exposing the ugliness of such a trade and Solomon himself shows the endurance of one man to break this system.