It starts in a field, as a group of men—all black—are huddled too-close together, looking as if the frame itself is going to crush them. They toil away, cutting down swathes of sugarcane; later, dinner is consumed in silence, and amid what seems to be 20, maybe 30 people practically sleeping on top of each other, a man named Platt lies on the floor. He shares a quick, unsolicited moment with a woman next to him, and afterward, you can see shame and confusion play across his face. Even a furtive stab at intimacy in this environment translates as deadening and abusive. His soul seems to be leaking out of his body before our very eyes.
Within five minutes of his adaptation of Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir, British filmmaker Steve McQueen has already put viewers on alert: This is what slavery, that peculiar institution that started a civil war and will forever compromise our nation’s moral integrity, looks like. The images may be pretty at times—a visual artist before he was a director, McQueen isn’t afraid to fixate on the way that blackberry juice runs across the lip of a dull tin plate, or how the dying embers of a burning letter fade into darkness. But this story of Northup, a cultured and free black New Yorker who was drugged by carnies, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.…His tale will not be pretty at all.
You will see how Northup, played with extraordinary precision and grace by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, is beaten with planks and whips, his shirt reduced to—as one character says in a singsong voice—“rags and tatters, rags and tatters.” You will see him lose his identity (“You are now called Platt,” he is told, a declaration punctuated by a slap across the face) as he and his fellow travelers are stripped naked and sold by an auctioneer (Paul Giamatti) as if they were livestock (“He’ll grow up to be a fine beast”). You’ll see children separated from their mothers, how a “nice” master (Benedict Cumberbatch) is still a master nonetheless, and how other slaves must go about their business while one of their own hangs from a rope, his toes brushing the ground just enough to keep him alive. You’ll think that Platt/Northup is well on his way to being systematically broken, and then you’ll meet Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), our hero’s new “owner.” And you’ll realize you’ve really seen nothing yet.
Systematically is the key word here, and not just because Ejiofor’s character must endure methodical round-robins of pain and humiliation. Though McQueen continues to work his themes of suffering and spiritual transcendence (his debut, 2008’s Hunger, dealt with activist Bobby Sands starving himself to death in prison; 2011’s Shame looked at a sex addict’s attempt to kick the habit), this unflinching, unforgiving drama is not about a slave, but about slavery itself. Northup plays the violin and is considered a pillar of society when he’s a Yankee—but when he becomes part of the machinations of slavery, none of that truly matters; even his musical prowess, which wins him small favors, gets him no closer to freedom. He is simply another black man enslaved. His ordeal is nightmarish, yet it was not an uncommon one—and that is what is truly horrific. Beatings, abuse, rape—and being complicit in perpetrating those things on others—were a matter of course, and the power that one race held over another ended up tainting and corrupting all parties. If 12 Years a Slave underlines nothing else, it’s that this system destroyed everyone’s humanity, from the hand that wielded the whip to the back that was scarred by it.
One side of that equation did suffer a dehumanization far greater than the other, of course, and regardless of what most folks may have read about the horrors of slavery, it is another thing entirely to see them presented in such a visceral manner. In watching the film’s physical and psychic violence unfold across the screen, however, you never sense that McQueen is trying to show off his filmmaking virtuosity or use these realistically re-created historical horrors to, say, add an edginess to a pseudo-cool pomo exploitation film (no names mentioned). Instead, there’s a sense of honoring what so many Americans were forced to go through during a very, very dark period in our history, of trying to make a modern audience feel the weight and burden of an ancestral experience. In one of those odd confluences of timing, McQueen’s movie opens after two other films this year—Fruitvale Station and Lee Daniels’ The Butler—that examine race in America from numerous angles, measuring strides taken and distances to be covered. Here, we are shown the beginning of that journey, and bear witness to the hurt acquired along the way. There’s a moment near the end of 12 Years a Slave where Ejiofor glances away from the horizon and directly into the camera; the look in his eyes conveys a legacy of anguish and several generations’ will to survive. More than a century has passed since the events depicted onscreen. Yet in that second, as you sift through your own feelings of sorrow and rage, the movie does not feel like it’s about the past at all.
Follow David Fear on Twitter: @davidlfear