Produced in 2013, 12 YEARS A SLAVE is an exceptionally powerful and well-made movie from director Steve McQueen, with an unblinkingly fine script by John Ridley and a wonderful cast headed by Chiwetel Ejiofor. The period details are dead-on and the overall look of the film possesses a realism and a savage beauty that is often breathtaking.
It’s all based on the 1853 nonfiction memoir of the same title by Solomon Northrup, a free black man who made a considerable success for himself and his family in upstate New York before being lured to the nation’s capital. There he is kidnapped, taken south and sold into slavery in the 1840s Louisiana. Merely claiming his true identity and rights as a free man earns him savage abuse and he quickly realizes that his PHYSICAL survival revolves around pretending to accept his status–while, conversely, his EMOTIONAL and SPIRITUAL survival means he must never forget who and what he really is. And he must strive–despite repeated and brutal setbacks–to somehow covertly contact the northern friends who are the only ones who might prove he is illegally enslaved.
Ejiofor delivers one of the finest, most emotionally honest and moving performances of recent times as Northrup–an intelligent, thoughtful family man thrust into the nightmare existence of a slave in the old South.
The supporting cast is first rate as well. Benedict Cumberbatch’s character imagines himself a good and decent man, yet as the first of the two white man to claim “ownership” of Northrup he turns a blind eye to the injustice and violence inherent in the society he benefits from. Likewise, he takes advantage of Northrup’s many skills yet cowardly sells him off to a notoriously vicious plantation owner when trouble arises.
Michael Fassbinder plays that second and more openly vile plantation scion. Sarah Paulson is his stern and jealous wife. Late in the film Brad Pitt appears as a Canadian architect Fassbinder hires who proves the only outwardly sympathetic white person who actually comes through for (rather than betraying) Northrup.
Each of these actors do good and believable work here, but for my money the standout performance (aside from Ejiofor’s) is by Lupita Nyong’o as the beautiful young slave who becomes Fassbinder’s alternately favored and abused mistress.
This story of one of the very, VERY few people to legally escape slavery in the US before the Civil War is at once compelling history, hard to watch yet impossible to turn away from and, in the end, the story of how one man kept his humanity in an environment designed to reduce him to something less than fully human.
Very highly recommended.