'12 Years a Slave' brings harrowing history to life

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives a powerful performance in this account of this fact-based account of the brutality and madness of American slavery.

Director Steve McQueen's historical drama 12 Years a Slave provides a harrowing example of an exception proving the rule.
Screenwriter John Ridley adapts the 160 year-old memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black carpenter and violinist born of a freed slave in New York. Solomon's book describes how he was taken prisoner, misidentified as a runaway slave and forced into more than a decade of servitude in the plantation South.

In the film's early scenes, Solomon's captors brutally beat him whenever he asserts his real identity and denies being a Georgia runaway. The level of injustice is almost unbearable as the American slavery system of the mid-1800s strips Solomon of his identity, freedom and very nearly his hope. He doesn't deserve it, and 12 Years a Slave's trusts its audience to appreciate that no other American slave deserved such treatment, either, no matter the circumstances of their enslavement. Solomon's case only throws the monstrous institution into compellingly stark relief

In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon's reversal of fortune happens shockingly fast. A comfortably middle-class husband and father, Solomon accepts an offer to tour with a pair of traveling musicians (who seem about as trustworthy as the slick-talking fox and cat from Pinocchio). After a drunken night, Solomon finds himself manacled in a cell with no way to prove his identity or contact anyone who can.

When his captors ship Solomon and other prisoners south on a riverboat, McQueen shows close-ups of the paddlewheel churning the water like a devouring emblem of industry. The quick end of a would-be rebellious captive proves the perils of resistance, but Solomon seems even more disheartened by the lost slave who weeps with gratitude when reunited with his owner in an image of an entirely broken spirit.

A snapping, Dickensian slaver (Paul Giamatti) sells Solomon to the seemingly enlightened William Ford (Benedict Cumberbath), who reads from scripture and willingly heeds Solomon's engineering advice. Ford proves an utter hypocrite, however, employing a sneeringly hateful overseer (Paul Dano) and never putting Solomon's well-being over his own short-term self-interest.

Ford ultimately sells Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who's not just sadistic tyrant, but outright deranged. In the middle of the night, he'll drag his servants from their beds and force them to dance in the big house. To the fury of his wife (Sarah Paulson), Epps reveals an obsession with Patsy (the heartbreaking Lupita Nyong'o), a tormented beauty who happens to be best cotton picker on plantation. Solomon and Patsy frequently find themselves as pawns in the married couple's petty dysfunctions. (It's like being in Hell and being caught in a feud between Mr. and Mrs. Satan.)

McQueen previously worked with Fassbender in the smaller-scale character studies Hunger and Shame, and while 12 Years a Slave crosses a continent and spans years, it remains an intimate story. Ejiofor conveys not just Solomon's agony, but his attentiveness. We feel at arm's length to Solomon as he constantly studies every angle for a chance to escape, or at least improve his situation. And we exult when Solomon gets even with a white bully, even as we dread the punishment bound to follow.

The rest of the cast give similarly complex performances that reveal their characters as more than simply victims and villains. Fassbender and Paulson so effectively convey the slaveowners' psychologies, they're far more hateful than they'd be simply as one-dimensional heavies. The film's only real misstep is the casting of a huge movie star, sporting Quaker-like facial hair, in a modest but important 11th hour role. The stunt casting takes the audience out of the story McQueen and company so powerfully recounted to that point.

It's difficult to watch 12 Years a Slave without thinking of Django Unchained. (At times, it's difficult to watch the film, period.) Not only do the films have similar themes, but some of the plantation locales look very much alike. Compared to McQueen's merciless realism, Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasy feels like facile wish fulfillment. 12 Years a Slave qualifies as the cinematic equivalent to such American classics as the novel The Confessions of Nat Turner or the autobiography The Life of Frederick Douglass, and offers a devastating portrayal of what some scholars consider the original sin of American history.

12 Years a Slave Directed by Steve McQueen. Stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassebender. Rated R. Opens Fri., Oct. 18. At area theaters.