Certain movies go beyond entertainment and capture a story that leaves a lasting impression on its audience. Directed by Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is one of those movies.
Based on a 19th-century memoir with the same title, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York.
Solomon is abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. This well-respected carpenter and violinist is stripped of his past, his family and his identity before being transported to the Deep South as a plantation slave. While he insists on his freedom at the beginning of his enslavement, the scars from initially speaking up haunt Solomon and put him into a state of silence for most of his captivity.
Re-christened as Platt, Solomon is sold to a relatively sympathetic master named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) but is later resold to the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps is a merciless master and is obsessed with a female slave by the name of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps’ cycles of infatuation and rage with Patsey wreak havoc on the plantation, having a profound impact on Solomon.
Though he endures unimaginable beatings, it is the psychological torture that weighs heaviest on Solomon. While he attempts to forget his family and feels stripped of his dignity, there is an irresistible drive to escape enslavement that Solomon battles with throughout the plot.
The movie successfully portrays the complexities of Solomon’s survival through phenomenal character development that must be credited to the skill and heart of Ejiofor. Solomon is portrayed as a gentle-natured man who struggles with maintaining his true self in an unjust situation. Ejiofor has the ability to convey palpable anguish to the audience as they witness his relationship with both the other slaves — particularly Patsey — and his masters.
Just as talented as the leading man, Nyong’o and Fassbender are rightly Oscar nominated for their supporting roles.
Cumberbatch’s Ford is an intriguing character that the audience, like Solomon, can begin to appreciate while still being disgusted at the ambivalence he demonstrates. The contrast between Ford and Epp highlights an important point; sadistic or good-natured, when fundamental beliefs of superiority are upheld anyone is capable of furthering an evil an unjust system.
McQueen does not shelter the audience from the brutality of such a system. His use of long shots during horrific scenes makes the audience wince in pain with the characters while wishing for the scene to be over.
In particular, the audience is held with Solomon as he dangles in a noose after a plantation overseer tries to hang him. The viewer is forced to wait with him for what seems like hours for someone to cut him down. The silence in these moments, coupled with Solomon’s periodic gasping for air, is excruciating.
Indeed silence is used throughout the movie, and when music is incorporated it is purposeful and effective. Solomon’s violin plays an integral role in the plot and the sounds of the instrument are beautifully interwoven into the movie’s score. At the forefront of some scenes and other times complementary to the movie as a whole, the score is always absorbing.
Solomon is eventually freed, as the title suggests, but his abductors are never brought to justice. With Solomon’s captors left free, the audience cannot walk away without a sense of dissatisfaction at the injustices experienced by Solomon and so many others who were enslaved.
McQueen can be commended for approaching the subject matter in a way that does not alienate his audience with a sense of guilt, yet it is impossible to leave this movie without drawing a parallel with present day attitudes on slavery.
From beginning to end, 12 Years a Slave does not disappoint. It is a poignant tribute to the real Solomon Northup and the countless others who suffered until slavery was finally abolished in America. Although far from leisurely viewing, this historical movie is a must see.
12 Years a Slave plays at Roxy Theatre until Feb. 6.