Based on a harrowing real-life story reflecting countless inhumane atrocities committed under the American slavery during the 19th century, “12 Years a Slave” honestly and bravely faces its dark historical subject, and it will give you an unforgettable experience which will linger on your mind long after watching it. You may cringe at its brutal and ruthless moments of human evil reigning under an unethical system, but we know such things did happen in the history, and the variety of strong emotions generated from these ugly sights of trampled and corrupted humanity is powerful enough to hold our attention to its uncompromising portrayal of human sufferings to be seen and remembered.
The movie is adapted from the 1853 memoir written by Solomon Northup, an African American who had to endure 12 years of horrible experience under the slavery in Louisiana before being luckily rescued in the end. While the book has been relatively forgotten since its publication, it has been regarded as one of the important historical records from that tragic era, and the book was once adapted to a TV film directed by Gordon Parks in 1984(I have not seen it, but I heard that it was a good movie though its depiction of slavery was milder in comparison).
Before he was kidnapped, Solomon Northup(Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free-born African American living in Saratoga, New York in 1841. While he was an educated man who worked as a musician, he also had a wife and two children, and we see the brief scene of their happy time before his plight begins. They walk freely around the city like any other citizens, and most people treat the Northups nicely, but the slavery is still a part of their reality, as shown during a small moment when an African American guy looks at them with a mixed feeling of curiosity and envy.
Not long after his wife and children leave their home for a while due to her work in Sandy Hill, Northup is approached by two gentlemen offering a job to him, and he accepts the offer. On the next day after he arrives at Washington D.C., he realizes that he was deceived, but it is already too late for him; when he wakes up in the next morning after the night of dinner and following heavy drinking with them, he finds himself shackled and locked up in a cell, and now he is going to be sold into slavery after being sent to the south region.
The movie is unflinching in depicting how Northup is tumbled down into the dark, hopeless pit of slavery along with others, and it deeply unsettles us through how much human beings can be cruel to others while following an unjust system called slavery. Handled by a slave trader named Freeman(Paul Giamatti), Northup is stripped of his identity and then named ‘Platt’, and he quickly learns from others that he must say and do as little as possible – even when he happens to witness a heartless moment when his fellow kidnapped woman Eliza(Adepero Oduye) is forced to be separated from her young children by Freeman as a part of his usual business day.
Northup encounters various people during his long, grueling plight. Some of them are capable of compassion and kindness, but they are also bound by the slavery just like others. Northup is luckily bought by a kind plantation owner named Ford(Benedict Cumberbatch), and he is benevolent to his slaves compared to his wife or his despicable racist employee Tibeats(Paul Dano), but Ford lets himself ignore the evil of slavery because he cannot deny that his struggling business depends on it. He does a right thing when he prevents Northup from being killed at one point, but, instead of helping him regain his freedom, he chooses to sell Northup to Edwin Epps(Michael Fassbender), a vicious man who whips his slaves whenever they do not work enough in his standard.
While never stepping away from the barbaric behaviors fueled by racism, the director Steven McQueeen firmly maintains the focus on his subject clear and sharp throughout the film. As shown in his two uncomfortable but memorable works “Hunger“(2008) and “Shame“(2011), McQueen has shown his talent in vividly presenting the extreme human conditions on the screen with considerable power and honesty, and his austere approach to John Ridley’s adapted screenplay generates many striking moments such as when Northup is left alone while hanged on the tree for a long time in the quiet mood of a Southern plantation in the afternoon. While it is painful to watch him barely supporting himself on the ground with a noose on his neck, it is also horrible to see that no one is particularly willing to help him until he is finally released from this long ordeal after several hours.
After being sent to Epps’ cotton plantation where he will be held for nearly 10 years, it only gets far worse for Northup, and he is pushed into more atrocities along with the other slaves including Patsey(Lupita Nyong’o), who has been unbearably stuck between Epps and his wife(Sarah Paulson) because of Epps’ obsessive desire toward her. Besides exploiting her labor at the cotton field almost everyday, Epps frequently rapes Patsey, and Mrs. Epps lashes out her cold fury at Patsey while making no secret about how much she despises her sadistic husband. During a gut-wrenching scene in which Patsey is ordered to be whipped mercilessly, the cinematographer Sean Bobbit’s handheld camera captures all the physical/psychological cruelties and sufferings in a smooth, steady movement around the characters, and this is devastating to watch even when the camera does not look at the gruesome details to be shown.
Under McQueen’s deft direction, the movie is imbued with the vivid atmosphere of the 19th century for depicting the time when human beings were treated like objects to be owned. The widescreen of 2.35:1 ratio is effectively used with frequent close-ups for generating the constant feeling of confinement surrounding Northup and other slave characters, and Hans Zimmer’s restrained ambient score mostly holds itself except during a few scenes where it is required to increase its volume to emphasize the dramatic tension on the screen.
As the lead actor holding the center of the movie, Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a strong performance bound to be Oscar-nominated along with his excellent co-performers. Like other slaves surrounding him, Northup does not say a lot about his feelings while working as ordered, but Ejiofor’s face directly shows us a despairing human soul who has been suffering so many humiliations and torments, and he is particularly good during the scene in which Northup sings with others at the funeral of their co-worker; he is reluctant at first, and then he slowly joins others in the singing, while barely holding the swelling emotions inside him.
On the opposite, Michael Fassbender, who previously collaborated with McQueen in “Hunger” and “Shame”, gives the most twisted case of racism since Ralph Fiennes in “Schindler’s List”(1993). Epps is a monstrous man who knows no bottom in his cruelties, and Fassbender always electrifies his scenes with scary unpredictability and sheer manic intensity as suggesting deep self-hate rooted inside Epps. While he is the one who wields a whip above the others, this hateful guy is miserable in his own way, and he only makes him as well as the others more miserable while rampaging with his hate and anger.
While Lupita Nyong’o deserves an Oscar nomination for her heartbreaking performance as a helpless woman at the bottom of despair, Sarah Paulson also deserves praise as Epps’ unforgiving wife who has her own twisted side nurtured by racism, and the movie is sprinkled with reliable actors from the beginning to the end. Alfre Woodard briefly appears as a former slave woman who climbed up the social latter through marrying her former master, and she and Benedict Cumberbatch effectively represent the people willing to go along with the system while just waiting for the change to come someday. Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti are detestable in their respective small villain roles, and Brad Pitt, who also participated in the production of the film, appears as a Canadian guy who chooses to help Northup even though there will be a big risk for that.
Since it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in last year, “12 Years a Slave” has been regarded as a strong Oscar contender, and it will probably win several awards at the upcoming Oscar ceremony. While it is a tough film to watch for its frank depiction of slavery, it is also a powerful work churning with strong emotions toward its subject, and its restrained finale in the end is very moving to say the least. This is indeed one of the best films about a painful chapter of the American history.