Starting out with a wronged-innocent-man plot that would have given Hitchcock some sleepless nights, and then plunging that beleaguered hero into one of American history’s most horrifying abominations, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” gives us a look at slavery more shocking and unflinching than we’ve ever seen on the big screen.
Adapting the memoir by Solomon Northrup, artist-turned-filmmaker McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) and screenwriter John Ridley (“Three Kings,” “Red Tails”) seem determined to obliterate any lingering “Gone With the Wind”-inspired notions that the antebellum South was a place of grace and charm, or that slavery was, in the euphemism of the day, merely a “peculiar institution.”
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“12 Years a Slave” may not reach the wide audience of “Roots,” or have the mass cultural impact of that miniseries — and with today’s splintered media landscape, probably nothing ever will — but it packs as much if not more than a wallop, with an R rating that allows for a heightened sense of violence and cruelty.
Northrup (portrayed memorably here by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man living in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1841. Two smooth-talking producers (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) hire him to play violin for their traveling circus, and when they reach Washington, D.C., the showmen drug Northrup and sell him into slavery. Realizing that protesting his status will only get him killed, he remains silent and is sold into servitude, now going by the name of “Platt.”
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Working first for mill-owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) — who’s smart enough to realize that Northrup wasn’t born in chains but too in debt to the slave trader (Paul Giamatti) to say anything about it — and then for cruel cotton grower Edwin Epps (McQueen regular Michael Fassbender), Northrup endures mental and physical abuse and hardship, all the while nurturing an ever-dimming hope that he will be able to contact the outside world and regain his freedom.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t as cool and dispassionate as McQueen’s earlier films, and it doesn’t indulge the director’s penchant for long takes nearly as much, but the results are no less intense. At times, the material itself is so hard to watch — Epps forcing Northrup to flay a fellow slave, for instance — that McQueen realizes that a few changes of camera angle aren’t going to make the scene any less challenging.
One of McQueen’s effective techniques is to keep the audio from one scene playing over the next as a chilling counterpoint. At one moment, for instance, a cruel overseer (Paul Dano) sings a creepy song of warning about what happens to slaves who attempt to run away, and that song — which just keeps going and going, long after you wish he would stop — starts playing over a church service being held for the slaves. That juxtaposition reminds us of the constant undercurrent of fear those slaves must have felt even during moments of supposed compassion from their exploiters.
And while “Hunger” and “Shame” both revolved around relatively small casts of speaking characters, McQueen creates a rich ensemble of performances here. Ejiofor guides us through this hell as deftly as Dante, forcing us to behold events we don’t want to watch, all the while hoping for his survival and deliverance. Fassbender’s Bible-thumping sadist registers — as does Sarah Paulson’s turn as his wife, who’s capable of both cruelty and compassion — and performers like Giamatti, Killam, Alfre Woodard (as a master’s high-living mistress) and “Pariah” star Adepero Oduye (unforgettable as a woman forcibly separated from her children) make an impact even when they’re only on screen for a scene or two.
Certain awards prognosticators are somewhat prematurely handing everything to this film, which I point out only because prizes tend to favor the heart over the head. (“The King’s Speech” beating out “The Social Network,” to give just one recent example.) McQueen and Ridley don’t set out to pluck our heartstrings; they instead let this historical horror show unfold before our eyes and trust that we don’t need to be told how to feel about it.
This approach mostly works, although there’s a big climactic moment in which “12 Years a Slave” suddenly wants us to get out our handkerchiefs; for a dry-eyed artist like McQueen, this is a somewhat unexpected turn and a not entirely successful one. The packed critics’ screening I attended ended with lots of applause but only scattered sobs.
Whether or not it’s festooned with trophies, “12 Years a Slave” will endure as a powerful work of art and as a meaningful contribution to this country’s ongoing conversation (and frequent amnesia) about race. It’s as difficult and harrowing as the material demands that it be.