Director Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the chronicle of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and forcing into slavery for over a decade is extraordinary. It’s absolutely excellent from the opening shot of a group of slaves, Solomon in the middle, right down to the tear soaked finale. “12 Years a Slave” ends up becoming an education for all audiences, and a form of unjust punishment for Northup who was just beginning to soak up his freedom, and found himself imprisoned back in to a personal hell of slavery, torture, and humiliation. I’ve been a fan of Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work since “Melinda and Melinda,” and in “12 Years a Slave” is performance is absolutely astounding.
As Solomon Northup, he’s a proud and humble man who spends his days enjoying his violin and living with his small family as a free man. When he’s offered to travel with two white performers across America for a healthy wage, he falls drunk during a dinner. When he awakens he discovers he’s been kidnapped, strapped down, and forced in to slavery once more. What ensues is a horrific and grueling series of punishments and violent conflicts that Solomon–now as Platt–must carefully orchestrate as he frantically looks for a way to escape his eternal damnation. Much of “12 Years a Slave” reveals not only how much Solomon suffered, but in the inherent utterly despicable suffering many African American slaves and workers endured during their time serving under white masters.
While director McQueen does bring forth an incredible cast of excellent performers to play supporting characters, “12 Years a Slave” belongs to Ejiofor and only Ejiofor. Director Steve McQueen seems to garner great confidence in the performance of Ejiofor, thus most of the suffering and absolutely horrific punishments occurring around him are seen through his own amazingly expressive eyes. He’s a man struggling to keep his hope alive, and his doubt at bay, and is forced to submit to his white masters despite his protests. Northup is, of course, forced to battle with the many pitfalls of being a slave, which he finds himself justifying for the sake of his own peace of mind. When he becomes a loyal servant of his somewhat caring master (Benedict Cumberbatch), fellow slave Eliza chastises him for being an Uncle Tom, to which he proclaims merely abiding for the sake of survival. But when does appeasing your captors eventually become Stockholm Syndrome?
There’s also a powerful moment where Northup relents during a ceremonial slave chant, signifying his broken spirit and surrendering to servitude. The soulful songs now become moans of pain unanswered. There isn’t a single thing he can do but work, keep his head hung low, and endure the pain of sadistic owners. Not to mention scramble to find someone willing believe his story and call for help to prove his freedom. That becomes an uphill battle as he comes face to face with literally every single amount of scum the Earth can muster up before him. “12 Years a Slave” presents a bleak view of humanity where honor and pride become nothing but words in the face of Northup’s plea for help. Paul Dano is especially disgusting as a slave runner who delights in humiliating his slaves, and forms a hatred with Solomon when he dares to display initiative and falls in to his master’s favor.
There’s also a wonderful supporting performance by Michael Fassbender who is a very broken slave master torn between his obligations as white man to hate his slaves, while suffering over his love for one of his female slaves (Lupita Nyong’o is yet another incredible performer). Director McQueen photographs and directs “12 Years a Slave” with immense skill and mind blowing precision that not a single beat is missed during the horrible tale of Northup. And in true fashion, not a single detail is spared about Northup’s descent in to slavery, submitting audiences to disturbing but crucial scenes of slave degradation and humiliation while Northup’s struggle to go home quickly becomes his struggle to keep his identity intact threatening to be buried in one of the many unmarked graves the slaves are dropped in to in back of his master’s home. “12 Years a Slave” is a wonderful drama, a compelling and stunning bit of insight in to the age of slavery and de-humanizing effects it’s had on both slaves and their masters. It’s a masterpiece of modern cinema and one I intend to celebrate whenever I can.