We expect the lashings, the leg irons, the cruelty and injustice of it all. But what Steve McQueen’s brilliant “12 Years A Slave” does for our understanding of that “peculiar” institution is the utter hopelessness of those enslaved.
It lets a GPS/smart phone-addicted generation understand what it was like to not know where you were, to realize the helplessness of attempting to run away or steal paper to write a plea for help.
And it forces those who would rationalize the horrific institution, the era’s mores and religious “justification” for human beings enslaving and torturing one another to see that there is no rationalization for it, that there were many who could tell right from wrong, even back then.
Chewitel Ejiofor conjures up just the right measure of dignity and refinement as Solomon Northup, a New York musician, husband and father who was tricked into taking an engagement in Washington, D.C., along the border between free and slave states.
Yes, this really happened in 1841, an American who had never been a slave was kidnapped, smuggled south and sold into slavery. He struggled to keep his spirits up and his hope alive, even as others around him committed suicide or fell into inconsolable weeping at having their children sold away from them.
“How can you fall into such despair?” he asks.
“How can you not?”
The beauty of this movie is in how we identify with Northup and come to understand the awful effects his loss of liberty had not just on him, but on the moral relativists and outright sadists who ran machinery of slavery. Even a so-called “good master” (the terrific Benedict Cumberbatch plays one) had to embrace an “it’s just business” myopia about what he was doing to other human beings. Even a “legitimate businessman” (Paul Giamatti) had to close his eyes to the unspeakable cruelty of breaking up families, to become less human by treating other humans as livestock.
And then there were the monsters. Paul Dano is hateful perfection as the classic low-class overseer, brutal to his charges because he needs somebody to look down on and lord over. A wild-eyed Michael Fassbender plays an alcoholic Louisiana landowner who keeps an enslaved paramour (Lupita Nyong’o, a revelation) whom his resentful wife (Sarah Paulson) insists on forcing her husband to torture in his sober moments.
And Alfre Woodard plays a one-time slave who has become mistress of her house, not above keeping slaves of her own, but capable of empathy and kindness towards those still confined.
Ejiofor plays Northup’s emotions close to the vest as he endures the unendurablem — hard labor, from cotton picking to cane harvesting — and harder punishment. Northup’s music is one way he clings to his humanity, but even that isn’t enough. Ejiofor never lets us see hate or fear in the man’s eyes, only resignation and slivers of hope that he might somehow escape this hell.
It’s a challenging, serious and inspiring film, not the japing blacksploitation burlesque that was “Django Unchained.” McQueen and his stellar cast take us on a difficult journey, an odyssey that will make you want to avert your eyes. It is to their great credit that we don’t.
MPAA Rating: R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
Cast: Chewitel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt.
Credits: Directed by Steve McQueen, scripted by John Ridley, based on the autobiography “12 Years a Slave A Fox Searchlight release.
Running time: 2:12