Told with an unflinching eye by director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger), the story centers on Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, in a riveting performance that has Best Actor written all over it), an educated, free-born black man living in New York in the 1840s. He’s got a home, and a wife, and two kids... and a decidedly nice life. When he’s tricked into believing his exceptional fiddling skills have landed him a well-paying gig with a traveling circus, what begins as a night out with his new “colleagues” turns into a nightmare – Solomon is drugged and chained and shipped to Georgia, where he’s promptly and unapologetically sold into slavery.
And, thus, his epic struggle to regain his freedom and return to New York begins.
The film tracks Solomon – renamed “Platt” by an auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) selling slaves as though they were thoroughbreds – on his journey from one terrible circumstance to another, and one slave owner to the next, culminating in his sale to a loathsome cotton-plantation owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a multifaceted but no less vicious or terrifying villain, who routinely lashes out (literally and figuratively) at those in his charge. His main object of simultaneous desire and scorn is a young slave woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, who’s an utter revelation), whose life is an ongoing series of escalating miseries.
Ejiofor is nothing short of excellent from the first second he appears until his final frame, and his Solomon is a courageous, noble, steadfast hero. Fassbender drips evil in his role, but is careful to color Epps with the faintest glimmers of pain, hurt and anger so that, every now and again, the audience glimpses the coward behind the bullwhip. Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano turn up for vital supporting turns as, respectively, Solomon’s kindly first owner and a ruthless, petulant overseer. But if anyone walks away with 12 Years, it’s Nyong’o. Hers is the kind of performance for which supporting-actress awards were made. The depth of Patsey’s suffering is incomprehensible – there are images burned into my memory that I cannot unsee – and Nyong’o makes every ounce of it sob-inducingly real.
Driven by breathtakingly stellar performances and an astonishing true story that, in its time, likely wasn’t that rare (which makes it all the more shocking), 12 Years a Slave is a cinematic experience as much as it is a movie. Be aware that this is not a film for the faint of heart or delicate of constitution, and is often graphic in its depiction of the realities of slavery – the emotional toll on its victims, as well as the physical abuse they’re forced to endure.
At the end of the screening I attended, the audience remained in their seats and sat in still, stone-cold silence for a good minute or two into the credits before the first person stood to leave. That’s unheard of in today’s filmgoing world, and a measure of just how much this film can, and will, affect you.