Upsetting and well made, 12 Years a Slave is a dynamic film with terrific performances, equally strong writing and nigh impeccable direction. It isn’t easy to watch, but that is partially why its powerful.
Writer John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen craft an unflinching portrait of United States slavery, and in so doing analyze the way humanity victimizes others, using corrupt systems to moralize bad behavior. We do not gain insight into individual slavers’ psychology, but we do understand the institution of slavery, and thereby the ways tradition can corrupt human beings who might have been decent under different circumstances.
This theme is best communicated through William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems like a decent person until the moment he silences Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofer) from pleading for freedom. As Ford demonstrates, it is often easier to ignore than to confront immorality. Like most of us, he could be a good man, but he is also capable of atrocity, and like many others before and since, he does vile things because society accepts, maybe even expects, it.
Theme is not the screenplay’s only strength. The characters, most especially Solomon, are well developed. Even the primary villain, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is not one dimensional. He is evil, but he is also layered, at least to some extent, by an unbending conviction that what he does is right under the law, both mortal and divine.
Supporting characters like Bass (Brad Pitt), Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulsen), Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) are developed with just enough detail that they never feel archetypal or oversimplified.
The narrative is paced well, and every scene feels significant.
The film’s violence repulses, not excites, us. It is used sparingly and powerfully to make us feel the true horror of humanity’s capacity for mistreatment.
McQueen’s direction is impressive, most notably because he perfectly times extended shots of uncomfortable situations, as when someone sympathetic is whipped. He also wisely resists the urge to offer respite for the viewer. McQueen has the courage to immerse, to risk our discomfort, so that he can tell the story his subject demands.
This film’s score further communicates grimness.
The actors are also universally terrific. Fassbender and Ejiofer could receive multiple award nominations, and they will deserve each of them. The other actors more than hold their own, with Bendict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o and Sarah Paulsen serving as standouts.
12 Years a Slave’s biggest flaw might be in how it marks passage of time, or rather in how it fails to do so. We never have a sense of the duration of Solomon’s enslavement, which means we do not feel, on a visceral level, just how long this extraordinary man endures.
But that is a minor misstep. 12 Years A Slave is a fantastic movie.