’12 Years a Slave’ Is Merciless, Magnificent

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave opened to rave reviews at the Telluride Film Festival in August. It has since emerged as a contender for both Best Picture and Best Actor Oscars; it is clear that the film is a cinematic success. But what remains unclear is whether this film will be a hit at the box office. After all, it’s a direct and brutal depiction of the darkest part of American history–not usually blockbuster material. However, it would be a shame for audiences to shy away, as this film not only addresses a reprehensible past that we all have a responsibility to confront, but it is also magnificent.

12 Years a Slave tells the true story of Soloman Northup, born a free man in New York, who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana where unimaginable tortures become his daily reality for the next 12 years.

At the movie’s start, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living with his family in upstate New York. He is a well-respected musician and treated with the utmost respect by his white neighbors. However, a quick money opportunity–playing violin in a traveling circus–quickly turns out to be an elaborate ruse and Northup is drugged and imprisoned not two miles away from the nation’s Capitol. It is at that moment, a dramatic camera pan from Northup’s cell to the U.S. Capitol, that McQueen’s film takes on a new identity, not as a period piece, but as a direct confrontation of the horrors Americans subjected their follow human beings to less than 150 years ago.

Northup is savagely beaten in the cell. This is treatment is meant to, as it’s put in the film, “season a man to his condition.” It’s brutal and upsetting, but it is far from the worst of what’s to come. Northup, brought to life by Eijofor with a quiet dignity, will be forced to harvest cotton and sugar cane; to dance in the middle of the night for the entertainment of sadistic masters; he will survive a near-lynching and keep quiet as others suffer around him.

12 Years will undoubtedly draw some comparisons Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchainedbut the two are nothing alike. This is no revenge fantasy and the slave owners in this film are not depicted as purely evil; they have multitudes. Platt, as Northup comes to be known by in slavery, is first owned by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who believes himself to be principled and good. And, in fact, he mostly is. But central to the thesis of 12 Years a Slave is that slavery as an institution corrupts everyone and everything that it touches.

Northup’s darkest hours come when he’s traded to Mary and Edwin Epps (Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender) who are as close to purely evil as they come. Epps beats and berates his slaves constantly as his wife, the antebellum Lady Macbeth, nods silently in approval from the background. In roles that could have been cartoonishly evil, Paulson and Fassbender deliver remarkable performances, finding some small bit of humanism. Fassbender’s Epps holds only one truism sacred, having found biblical justification, and that is that he can and will do whatever he pleases with his property. On her side, Mary Epps is a woman in the south which amounts her very few rights of her own and as she watches her husband favor a slave (Lupita Nyong’o) over her, she lashes out against the only people weaker than she.

It is Nyong’o, a relative newcomer, who shines brightest in this film as Patsey. Doomed by her good looks, Patsey endures savage beatings and rape at the hands of the Eppses, but is never really broken. While Northup’s strength is improbable, Patsey’s, a life-time slave, is inconceivable.

The film’s title is, essentially, a spoiler. But knowing that Northup eventually escapes bondage, does not make 12 Years a Slave any less harrowing. Helmed by an expert director and catapulted by a phenomenal cast, 12 Years a Slave is absolutely deserving of all its praise.