Last year's unfortunately-toned Django Unchained felt like it was winking at what is the most sinful chapter in America's history. It was a film about slavery, but it was a fantasy film; though it included several great performances and some genius behind-the-scenes work, those efforts were ultimately undermined by the film’s overarching vision: let’s take a true national horror and sensationalize it, make it funny, even. Director Steve McQueen, in only his second major full-length project, takes an altogether different tact, choosing unlike Django’s Quentin Tarantino to play it straight and to give us a film that lets its own subject matter—rather than its visionary’s imagination—determine its mood. In this case, that means the mood is one of heartbreak, violence, solemnness, pain, anger that people can be so hateful, and hopefulness that God nevertheless provides genuine hope. 12 Years A Slave is one of the best movies of 2013.
Solomon Northup was a free black man living peacefully with his family in Saratoga, NY, in the pre-Civil War 1800s. He is duped into following two would-be businessmen to Washington, DC, but the men are really kidnappers who proceed to turn him over to Louisiana-bound slave traders. For the ensuing twelve years, Mr. Northup fights to maintain dignity, hope, and his very life in a day-to-day existence that is a cruel horror. Chiwetel Ejiofor, a Nigerian-born, London-educated actor, portrays Mr. Northup with degrees of soul and agility that have already earned him some prestigious accolades. While at one of the plantations where he is forced to work Northup meets a slave girl named Patsey (a remarkable debut by Lupita Nyong’o) who suffers worst of all and is driven nearly to suicide, as she quickly becomes the go-to rape victim for her insatiable and angry “master”, Edwin Epps (the excellent and haunting Michael Fassbender). There is one scene in which Solomon is forced at gunpoint to assist with Patsey’s “punishment”; it is among the most tragic and upsetting things we’ve ever seen on screen.
Violent disdain of blacks by whites permeates Northup’s world just as we know it did on many of the South’s plantations; Paul Giamatti and Paul Dano both play dreadfully racist characters, though they possess very different careers and dispositions. But in the slave quarters, dim hope is kept alive by faith in God, the occasional kinder-hearted man, and—in Solomon’s case, a unique one—the truth about his legal standing as a free man that might one day cause him to be rescued and restored to his family. Brad Pitt shows up in a small but key role as an abolitionist named Bass who strengthens Solomon’s resolve.
Whether films like this engender “white guilt” among their mostly white, mostly affluent “art house” audiences is debatable. Equally debatable is the decision by Mr. McQueen to constantly emphasize the natural beauty of his subjects’ surroundings and hold his camera so steady. Scenes of human torture are often separated by sweeping golden sunset vistas or close-ups of stately live oaks, their Spanish moss gently rustling in the warm southern breeze. This coupled with the decidedly polished, cinematic style of photography whisper inadvertently to trick us: maybe, hopefully, all of this—Solomon’s plight, slavery in general—is just a dream. Questionable also is the very focus on Solomon, who was a slave for twelve years. Where are the films about men and women who were enslaved for their entire lives, those who had far less hope of freedom than Mr. Northup, those whose stories don't have happy endings? Maybe we don’t want those stories on our screens. Or maybe we don’t need them. Is twelve years (or two hours in a comfy theater seat) enough to help this generation inch closer to understanding and respecting this saddest era of America’s past? Maybe, maybe not. But at least 12 Years A Slave does well what good films are supposed to do: make us feel.