There’s nothing quite like a Steve McQueen film. Harnessing the best aspects of his pictorially and emotionally rich Hunger and Shame, the British visual artist turned director remains ahead of the cinematic curve with 12 Years a Slave, his finest work to date. Based on the memoirs of antebellum freeman Solomon Northup, the film is another fact-based case where Point A (Northup’s abduction into slavery) and Point B (his rescue after a dozen years) are known, yet the exceptional means of the “how” blur the latter signpost. In realizing this journey, McQueen and his collaborators take the personal humanity of Fruitvale Station and magnify it twenty-fold, resulting in not merely the year’s best-made film, but the most powerful and enriching one as well.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is masterful as Northup, handily owning the range required for such a demanding role. Via a mostly linear narrative, with John Ridley’s script occasionally jumping around to fill in the necessary blanks, Northup’s dignity is methodically and brutally stripped of him as he’s forced to refute the truth lest more torment befall him. Such trials construct one of the more worthy heroes in cinema, forcing audiences to endure the brunt of the basic injustice ladled upon Northup, firmly invested in his ongoing quest for freedom and maintaining hope that, despite various hardships and deceptions, he will return home to his wife and children.
Elevating that struggle and 12 Years a Slave as a whole to artwork status is McQueen’s arsenal of visual goodies. Each shot is a carefully constructed painting with imagery of a churning riverboat’s wheel or a colorful sunset offering reflection and meditation on the events without detracting from the story. As is McQueen’s forte, he likewise excels in a handful of carefully placed long takes. The first weaves through the home of slave seller Freeman (Paul Giamatti), powerfully crafting this heartbreaking step as Northup plays a violin and slaves stand naked for inspection. The stark sights inspire bids and negotiations from potential buyers, the result of which includes Eliza (Pariah’s Adepero Oduye) parted from her children and introduces the somewhat kind figure of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Northup’s initial owner, one of many familiar types that feel archetypical through this fresh lens.
The prelude to brutality, though strong in its own regard, is ultimately outdone by the real thing. Violence is an unfortunate necessity in honest slavery stories, but under McQueen’s eye these actions take on a new level of tragedy. Following a spat with Ford’s irrational employee Tibeats (Paul Dano), Northup finds himself hanging by a noose, his toes straining for solid ground amidst plentiful mud while business shockingly proceeds as usual around him. Numb to the abuse around them and carrying on as if nothing unordinary were occurring, his fellow slaves are unwilling/unable to assist, leaving him there to dangle.
Incapable of assuring his safety from Tibeats, Ford transfers Northup to the vicious Epps (Michael Fassbender, unstable and brilliantly unpredictable), sparking a different nightmare. At the height of that dark ride is an extended shot of the beleaguered Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) tied and whipped, easily the film’s harshest sequence. With the plantation’s major players watching and thrust into unanticipated roles, McQueen’s camera nimbly moves around the fateful post, boosting the experience’s pain and peaking twice with Patsey’s blood misting off her back and later glimpses of the terrible gashes themselves.
In the wake of such monumental wrongs and more to come, McQueen tops himself with a return to simplicity. Northup’s hope all but exhausted, 12 Years a Slave takes a collective breath with a shot of its lead looking out at the audience, his eyes slowly making the rounds as if imploring viewers throughout the theater to stay with him and give him the strength to persevere. It’s a devastating cap on an already intense journey, further evidence of the complete command exhibited by cast and crew. All of it works and is presented in such a meticulously smooth package that it thoroughly earns the distinction of masterpiece.
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality.
You conveyed an honest and vivid critique. It truly is a masterpiece.