“Your story, it is amazing. And in no good way,” Bass (Brad Pitt) tells Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) near the end of 12 Years a Slave, the remarkable new film from director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame). He’s right; Northup was a real man, an educated, sophisticated, free black man from Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Yet his extraordinary narrative (adapted by John Ridley from Northup’s memoir) is not why 12 Years a Slave is such a powerful experience. It is because of the vividness with which McQueen dramatizes the utter brutality of Northup’s everyday life as man treated as though he were less than one.
There were a lot of deep, heavy, audible breaths at the conclusion of the more harrowing scenes during Monday’s press screening (prefacing its screening as a Centerpiece Selection for this year’s New York Film Festival). This is not a film that takes it easy on the viewer, and its depictions of the gory cruelty of servitude are merciless — as well they should be. “People would rather look away than look at it,” McQueen explained at a post-screening press conference. He doesn’t let us look away — and, frankly, we don’t deserve to.
Left reeling by the experience, it was a bit of a surprise to learn that, in its broad strokes, the story reminds director McQueen of something as innocuous as Pinocchio (Solomon’s kidnapping is executed by two sketchy characters who take him to their circus). “It’s like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. The darkest, deepest, haunting fairy tales, which end in happily ever after — but you go from hell to get there.”
Hell is right. The logistics of not only Solomon’s abduction but the slave trade in general are laid out in horrifying detail. When he awakens in chains and is told that he is a runaway slave from Georgia, he is beaten until the paddle breaks and whipped until he bleeds. En route to the South, another victim (Michael K. Williams) suggests they fight back; he finds himself on the wrong end of a knife and buried at sea. Once they arrive, Solomon and his comrades are scrubbed and presented for sale like sides of beef by a particularly insidious Paul Giamatti (“Very likely he will grow into a fine beast. Six hundred for the boy”).
Viewed from the remove of our time and place, the nuts and bolts of this barbaric industry are all but unfathomable. They’re barely easier for the urbane Northrop to stomach — which is part of why McQueen was drawn to him. “The ‘way in’ for me was the whole idea of a free man who gets caught into slavery,” he explained. “And what I liked about that was that everyone in the audience could relate to Solomon. And therefore you’re on that journey with him.”
Ejiofor’s performance in the role of that audience surrogate is towering but never showy; he spends much of the film stifling his instincts, quieting his rage, and coping with his utter helplessness. You start to see his soul go dead in his eyes — and come lyrically back to life in a handful of moving, totally nonverbal moments in the third act.
Counterbalancing his bravura performance of economical understatement is one of roaring intensity by McQueen’s frequent collaborator Fassbender, as Master Epps, the vilest of Solomon’s “masters.” He’s a menacing embodiment of sanctified evil, sneering and leering and thumping his Bible, stumbling drunkenly into the slave quarters late at night and demanding hoedowns in his living room, pawing at Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who is in turn treated even more contemptuously by the lady of the estate (Sarah Paulson). 12 Years a Slave isn’t purely visceral; McQueen and Ridley are equally fascinated by the psychology of these people, and in exploring not just what drives pure evil like Master Epps, but the more complex morality of Mistress Shaw (Alfred Woodard) or Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). There are shades of corruption here — Master Ford, for example, is a “decent man” who treats Solomon with kindness and something resembling respect. But at the end of the day, how does any of that make a whiff of difference?
Northrup’s isn’t the only tragedy in the film — indeed, there are two women in the film whose tales are even more upsetting than his. Early on, Eliza (the sublime Adepero Oduye, from Pariah) is separated from her children, and is understandably unable to stop weeping. “Something to eat, and some rest,” shrugs the lady of the house. “Your children will soon be forgotten.” They are not, obviously, and when Solomon finally tries to quiet her, for her own good, she won’t have it: “Solomon, let me weep for my children.” It’s the first emotionally overwhelming beat in a film full of them.
Yet Patsey’s story is even more difficult. Raped frequently and worked like a mule, she voices her despair to Solomon and begs him to take her life (“I ain’t got no comfort in this life”). Her character, and the power struggle she is a mere pawn in, comes to a head in one of the most emotionally wrecking scenes I’ve ever seen in a film, done in a relentless unbroken take that left this viewer a shambles. You weep for this woman, and such inhumanity seems impossible. But it was all too real, and all too common.
Movies can do a great many things — they can make us laugh, or incite our heroism, or frighten us, or make us cry. 12 Years a Slave makes us feel, deeply and urgently.