A spiritual companion piece to Schindler’s List in its portrait of rare triumph amidst catastrophic tragedy, 12 Years a Slave (adapted from the 1853 autobiography of its protagonist) tells the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated free black husband and father of Saratoga Springs, New York who, in 1841, is deceived by two men posing as carnival owners and sold into slavery. Transported to Louisiana, Solomon becomes the property first of a somewhat benevolent master (Benedict Cumberbatch) and, after a run-in with a nastily insecure boss (Paul Dano), later cruel cotton magnate Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). It’s an odyssey of liberty and justice stolen and denied, as Solomon – learning first-hand during his voyage to the south that outright confrontation leads only to death – is forced by circumstances (and his desire to survive) to acquiesce to the brutal life of the slave, where any demonstration of intelligence is taken as act of defiance, and any movement toward freedom will mean the lash or noose.
Working from John Ridley’s script, which doesn’t strike a false note in its wide-ranging depiction of social, economic and individual oppression and rebellion, director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) dramatizes his material with an arresting virtuosity that’s always keyed to Solomon’s plight. McQueen casts Solomon to the side of gorgeous rural-panoramic compositions to highlight the tantalizing promise of liberty that seems at once so close and unattainable, and encases him in piercing close-ups that both suggest his imprisoned condition while also giving full-bodied expression to his sorrow and strength. Magnificently assured without every being showy, McQueen’s long takes reach an apex of dynamically shifting perspectives in a horrific centerpiece in which Solomon is forced to whip Epps’ slave mistress Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) at the behest of Epps’ jealous wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). The constantly roaming camera ensnares all the characters in a tangled tableau of malice and misery.
Aesthetically attuned to not only the alienation and suffering of Solomon but also the psychosexual sadism of Epps – and his deeply twisted rapport with Mary – 12 Years a Slave digs deep into the rot of historical racism, entitlement, and greed. It’s bolstered by a strong cast but nonetheless stands on the shoulders of Ejiofor and Fassbender. Refusing to indulge in any mustache-twirling cartoon villainy à la Leonardo DiCaprio’s Django Unchained baddie, Fassbender rants and rails while nonetheless locating the pathetic core of Epps’ vicious intolerance, which only serves to heighten his repulsiveness. He’s more than ably matched by Ejiofor, whose tour-de-force performance conveys an overpowering mixture of nobility and self-interest, determination and hopelessness, foolhardy courage and self-preservationist practicality – all of it seemingly expressed, simultaneously, in a masterful sustained close-up of Solomon singing at a funeral for a fellow slave even less fortunate than himself.