Solomon Northup, a black man from upstate New York, went to sleep on an April night in 1841 in Washington, D.C. - well-fed, albeit woozy, having just dined in the company of two affable gentlemen who had offered to pay good wages for him to play his violin. When he woke the next morning, Northup was shackled, in a dungeon a few streets from the Capitol. He had been drugged and abducted and was about to be smuggled south, to be sold into slavery.
When he insisted he was a free man, with a wife and children back in Saratoga Springs, he was beaten. And beaten again. It was the beginning of a nightmare odyssey, and it is the beginning of Steve McQueen's remarkable 12 Years a Slave.
A tale of impossible cruelty and incredible survival, this essential piece of filmmaking embodies, in microcosm, the long and shameful chapter of American history, when men, women, and children, because of the color of their skin, were oppressed, commodified, abused. It speaks to the courage and resilience of one man, the savagery of many, and the potential, for both good and for ill, in us all.
If that's not enough, it's just darn good storytelling, a picture made with impeccable artistry and intelligence, and with actors - Chiwetel Ejiofor foremost among them - who bring these heroes and villains, innocents and malefactors, to life, wholly, and sometimes horrifically. Michael Fassbender, McQueen's star in Hunger and Shame, plays Edwin Epps, the third of Northup's owners - a bitter man who lords over his Louisiana plantation, quoting scripture and whipping the slaves who do not do his bidding, or do not meet the daunting quotas of cotton they must pick.
It is shocking to think that apart from a handful of blaxploitation titles - and Quentin Tarantino's jokey, off-key take on that genre, Django Unchained - the subject of slavery, from the perspective of the enslaved, has never really been addressed on-screen before. McQueen, the black British director, remedies this failing, fearlessly.
Adapting Northup's 1853 memoir, McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley take the viewer down a surreal rabbit hole into a world of injustice, where the established social order is completely out of whack - and nobody, except the human chattel, seems to notice.
Ejiofor, who played the Royal Navy interpreter in Steven Spielberg's slave mutiny film Amistad (that legal case reached the U.S. Supreme Court in 1841, the same year Northup was kidnapped), gives body and soul to his role in 12 Years a Slave. Beaming great pride and dignity as the story begins, Northup is beaten down - and, in one gut-turning scene, strung up in a noose, left to hang. As he goes from disbelief and outrage to resignation and regret - from a determination to win freedom to merely a determination to survive - the change in Northup, whose slave name is Platt, is palpable.
The supporting roles, from the mercenary trader played by Paul Giamatti, to the morally compromised plantation owner played by Benedict Cumberbatch, to Lupita Nyong'o's slave girl (the object of Epps' admiration), to Paul Dano's bullying, small-minded overseer, are all top tier, memorable. Brad Pitt, wearing an Amish-style beard, is Samuel Bass, a carpenter from Canada who comes to work on the Epps plantation - sharing the screen with Ejiofor, and then Fassbender. Pitt delivers the movie's most transparently reflective dialogue - Bass is the movie's conscience, our collective conscience - and he does so, while hammering nails and raising beams, with a down-home grace and gravity.
McQueen, using a clanging score by Hans Zimmer, interwoven with fiddle jigs and spirituals, favors long takes, surveying the landscape, the faces, the bodies doing hard labor in the Southern heat. There are images that have the formal composition of old daguerreotypes. And the period details, the clothes, the houses, ring with authenticity.
At the same time, as we follow Solomon Northup on his harrowing journey, it all feels immediate, urgent. "Your story, it is amazing," Bass says to Northup, "and in no good way."
12 Years a Slave is history, but it resonates, in profound ways, in the here and now.