Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave is inescapable — you are impelled to witness every horror it depicts — and epochal — its existence is in a way an indictment of a century-plus of cinema that didn't have the temerity to make something like it.
12 Years a Slave is an adaptation of Solomon Northup's autobiographical work from the mid-19th century. Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film) is a free black man in Saratoga, New York, in 1841, when he is conned and kidnapped by two white men and sold into slavery in Washington, D.C. From there, Northup is spirited away to New Orleans, where he is purchased and sold again by a series of slaveholders over the next dozen years.
The film is a slave procedural. Through Solomon's experience, we encounter the American institution of slavery in all its deliberate, dehumanizing trappings. Solomon is tricked and passes out a free man and awakens in shackles. He contends his free status and is beaten for it. "You're a slave!" his captor exclaims, insisting he's an escaped Georgia runaway. He's put on a South-bound paddle boat. He commiserates with other slaves on the ship. "Tell no one you can read or write unless you want to be a dead nigger," he's advised.
A slaver named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) puts Solomon — renamed Platt — with other slaves on display for purchase. A mother and her children are separated in the process; violinists play louder to cover the cries of despair. "Your children will soon be forgotten," she is told.
Solomon is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and ruled by the overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano). Then his debt is transferred to the noted slave breaker Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and the perverse Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), and then, for a time he's rented out to Judge Turner (Bryan Batt).
Through this succession we see a diverse set of wealthy slave owners conducting a variety of agricultural practices. The Southern aristocracy runs from the benign, "good" master Ford to the sadistic Epps to the ... oh, wait, they're not diverse at all. They were all slave owners who perpetuated the inhumane system and became wealthy because of it.
You couldn't call any of this an underbelly, because it was the legitimate law of the land. It's horrible in part because it's not criminal in a strictly legal sense: Every brutality is conceived and executed in the sun, under the eyes of God.
McQueen's handling of it all is subtle but brilliantly conceived: 12 Years a Slave gazes right at that open wound, flesh whipped from the back, without overmuch artistic showiness. Thus, we're apt to think of it as a slave narrative, because it's more concerned with the order-of-operations framework of slavery than even the emotional toll (it leaves that up to the viewer and sees something of a release in the end of the film, following a Brad Pitt ex machina). Contrast 12 Years a Slave to Toni Morrison's Beloved, one of the best novels of the last century, which finds unending emotional terror in the same subject matter but was, it must be said, a very fictionalized account of a true story, rather than a true story that has been adapted. Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o as the slave Patsey are astonishing.
Slavery bent human beings into grotesque shapes, on both sides of the whip. But 12 Years a Slave is more concerned with the end of it. McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley are black. It's one of those things that shouldn't be notable but is. If you consider 12 Years a Slave with The Butler and Fruitvale Station, you can see a by-God trend of black filmmakers making mainstream movies about the black experience, something else that shouldn't be worth mentioning but is. Centuries of racial oppression and inequity, and the results continue to manifest themselves today. And people think ours is a post-racial society? McQueen doesn't want you to be comfortable with the thought.
12 Years a Slave
Opens Friday, November 1st