In one breathtaking scene in Steve McQueen's film 12 Years a Slave, our hero Solomon Northup, a free black man from the North who, in 1841, is kidnapped and sold into Southern slavery (and on whose autobiography the film is based), stands in a despondent stupor as his fellow plantation slaves sing a rousing spiritual. Overcome by the sheer hopelessness of his situation, Solomon, who is now a slave called Platt, eventually begins to sing along with them, tentatively then forcefully, his voice growing in strength and conviction as he sings about souls rising from the Earth. His face is pained but uplifted — he is both breaking, giving into the reality of his stolen life, and allowing himself to be delivered by the promise of kingdom come. Here in one brief scene is the remarkable contradiction of the human condition, grace poking up through even the most profound despair. That is the great strength of 12 Years a Slave, a film that humanizes a sprawling and often glossed-over historical atrocity through an individual's eyes, with admirable and necessary restraint.
There's not much editorializing in 12 Years a Slave; McQueen has never been terribly interested in broadcasting opinion. His two previous films, Hunger and Shame, had a calm, almost documentary style, watchful and observant, never indicating or overstating. Given this new film's subject matter, we certainly know that one side was grievously wrong, but still never feel the unwieldy, and frankly unnecessary, weight of McQueen's, or our, asserted moral authority. What Solomon experiences, and much of it is horrifying and excruciating to watch, simply happens. There's a terrifying ordinariness to the film's horror. That may actually be the one urgent point that McQueen is making, showing us how systemic and pervasive and everyday the culture of slavery was, how rooted and ingrained and thus seemingly invincible it was — for both slave and master. We meet only a handful of bad people in the film, but are never without a sense of the vast, broader-reaching injustices happening beyond these particular plantations. (We even feel it in the North, in flashbacks to Solomon's peaceful, prosperous life with his wife and children in Saratoga. Racial animus tingles around the edges of even that relative idyll.)
McQueen has made a film about one man (who is, in some ways, as much of an outsider to this world as we are) that awakens us to something much larger, something that feels distressingly familiar. Though its title suggests a temporary condition, the film forcefully, but subtly, nods toward a frightening permanency. By unflinchingly illustrating the foundational mechanics of America's worst crime, 12 Years a Slave says much about this country's legacy of racism up to the present day. The film's many plain and horrible truths shame us for not addressing these appalling facts every day, in myriad ways. The scariest thing about 12 Years a Slave is, perhaps, that it doesn't feel alien enough; it murmurs in tones we can still hear now, in stump speeches and legal defenses.
But again, McQueen avoids bonking us over the head with too much Larger Meaning. Mostly we are with Solomon, robustly and passionately played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as he struggles to hold onto his humanity, his dignity, though subjected to cruelty after cruelty, debasement after debasement. Solomon is brought to several plantations, the first owned by an at least somewhat decent man (relatively speaking) played by Benedict Cumberbatch. But after coming to blows with the plantation's sniveling carpenter (weaselly Paul Dano), Solomon is beaten and strung up and then sent to a green hell, a cotton plantation owned by Edwin Epps, a booze-addled monster played with white-knuckle ferocity by a towering Michael Fassbender. Epps treats his slaves like toys, and takes particular interest in Solomon, because of his intellect and refined abilities, and a young woman named Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, making a startling first impression), whom he rapes and abuses in drunken, possessive rages. It's here that Solomon's spirit truly begins to break, Ejiofor gradually hunching himself over, subtly and without any actorly affect, as his resolve weakens. His will to survive never quite disappears though, and he is eventually rescued from this nightmare after bending the ear of a sympathetic white man.
That man is played by Brad Pitt, who is also a producer on the film, a casting choice that marks probably the film's biggest misstep. Pitt's appearance, though brief, is distracting, taking us out of McQueen's meticulously crafted world and reminding us that these are all wealthy actors simply playing at history. Otherwise the film is entirely immersive, though McQueen has assembled a cast of other familiar and notable actors — Alfre Woodard and Sarah Paulson are particular standouts, Woodard as a slave at a neighboring plantation who has worked her way to being the lady of the house, and Paulson as Epps's equally cruel and spiteful wife. The photography, by the masterful cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, is austere when it needs to be, but is more often rich and aching, the Southern landscapes teeming with both dread and possibility. Hans Zimmer's lush score is at first eerie and foreboding, but by the movie's end has become something approaching a hymn. McQueen has put together a lovely and well-tailored film, but nothing is beautiful for beauty's sake. There is always a sense of economy to the filmmaking — this isn't Joe Wright's 12 Years a Slave. (Can you imagine!)
Speaking of other filmmakers, it's impossible to watch 12 Years a Slave, a hit at the Toronto Film Festival and Oscar front-runner that opens to the general public October 17, and not think about last year's similarly themed movie, Django Unchained. How disappointing it was that Quentin Tarantino simply set one of his fantastic yarns in a terrible time and place instead of actually saying something about the time and place. In that regard 12 Years a Slave feels corrective, McQueen giving us the thundering work of compassionate art that the subject matter deserves. Solomon Northup is himself unchained by the end of the picture, but his burden is still felt long after the credits have rolled and we've stumbled, shell-shocked and heartsick, back into the world.