If “Django Unchained” opened the door, then “12 Years a Slave” goes barreling through it, tackling its subject with utmost seriousness. The film opens in a world where slavery is a fact of life and Northup has no recourse to challenge his captivity. Duped and drugged on a bogus job interview, he awakens in shackles and is beaten ferociously when he dares to assert his status as a free man. Some may wonder why he doesn’t continue to protest, forgetting that the word of a black man in pre-Civil War America had almost no legal currency, especially if said individual was unable to produce his free papers.
Assuming Northup wants to survive, a fellow hostage advises, he must do and say as little as possible, in addition to hiding his ability to read and write. “I don’t want to survive,” Northup bellows. “I want to live!” Separated from his wife and children, he faces a situation where the entire society is stacked against him. While not every white person in the film is evil, they willingly participate in a system that demeans their fellow man, and the injustice is too great simply to forget and move on (as Hollywood and society would evidently prefer).
Alarmingly, the few films of the past century to engage directly with the institution of slavery have nearly all come from the exploitation sphere, fetishizing aspects of violence and sexual abuse that McQueen endeavors to cast in a different light. An early scene in which slave trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) prods naked slaves for the benefit of prospective buyers offers an alarming yet in-no-way-arousing corrective to an equivalent sequence in the tasteless 1971 mock-doc “Goodbye Uncle Tom,” which lingers on the nudity and degradation of such a market. There’s little ambiguity in these unflattering depictions, though neither is there opportunity for audiences to misconstrue them as erotic.
After its premiere screening at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival Friday evening, it goes without saying that no narrative film or TV program has ever depicted the sheer brutality and horror that was American slavery as Steve McQueen's "12 Years A Slave" does. Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841, "12 Years" is a powerful drama driven by McQueen's bold direction and the finest performance of Chiwetel Ejiofor's career.
The film begins about halfway through Northup's ordeal as he finds himself cutting sugarcane and sharing a floor to sleep on with countless other slaves. It then quickly jumps back to his idyllic life in Saratoga, New York where he appears to have made a living as a violin player. While his wife and two children head out of town for a few weeks (Quvenzhané Wallis briefly appears as his daughter), Northup (Ejiofor) makes the mistake of partnering with two men who present themselves as circus promoters (Taran Killam, Scoot McNairy) for a few performances culminating in Washington, D.C. At that time the nation's capital was not a safe area for free men of color because it bordered the slave states of Virginia and Maryland. After a night of celebrating with his supposed business partners, Northup wakes up to find himself in a slave pen shackled in chains. The horror of this situation is immediate to both Northup and the audience. His predicament becomes even more painful to watch after he is sold to a Louisiana plantation owner and freedom is now thousands of miles away.
Northup's story and the brutality he witnesses during his time as a slave would be tough viewing for anyone, but that's McQueen's greatest strength and what truly sets "12 Years" apart. McQueen has no fear in depicting the true savagery thrust upon American slaves by their owners. He won't flinch in holding on the image, even if it's graphically disturbing. Slavery was an inhumane evil that McQueen refuses to turn away from. The fact McQueen makes this creative decision early on allows one heartbreaking whipping scene near the end of the movie to effectively become the picture's climax. The scene is filmed completely in one shot allowing the tension to build as you realize there will be no escape for the victim or the viewer. It's obviously tough to watch, but also brilliantly realized. As producer and supporting cast member Brad Pitt noted in the film's post-screening Q&A, the film is so intense it makes you "want to take a group walk around the block." And, yes, that's a good thing.
Like countless movies before it, "12 Years a Slave" opens with a title card announcing that its material is based on a true story. However, Steve McQueen's startlingly realized period drama justifies its introductory note with each ensuing scene, recreating the experiences of a free black man kidnapped and sold into bondage at the tail-end of slavery in America so effectively that it's almost not a movie in traditional terms; instead, the plight of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) plays out like a poetic record of persecution. Initially a settled family man living in New York, Northup eventually faces one bleak reality after another like an accidental war journalist dropped into the center of the trenches, and we're right there with him.
Based on Northup's 1853 bestseller, "12 Years a Slave" owes much to Ejiofor's knockout performance. But it's a particularly noteworthy advancement in McQueen's already impressive filmography, as it funnels the cerebral formalism of his earlier features (the prison strike drama "Hunger" and the sex addict portrait "Shame") into a deeply involving survival narrative. As a result, "Slave" injects its topic with remarkable immediacy.
The spoiler's right there in the title, so McQueen wastes no time establishing Northup's conundrum, finding the solemn man living a hard life of labor picking cotton with his fellow slaves and vainly attempting to retain some modicum of hope. From there, the movie flashes back to 1841, when Northup lives a happy life in Saratoga with his wife and two young children, playing the violin at high society gatherings and seemingly removed from hardships down south. That changes quickly when a pair of men hire him to play a gig in Washington D.C., take him out for drinks ostensibly to celebrate and promptly drug him. Awaking in chains, he's suddenly forced to adopt a new identity as "Platt" and told by the first of many cruel-eyed white men that he's an escaped Georgia runaway. It's here that "Slave" kicks into high gear, using the full powers of film language to convey the despair that eventually consumes Northup's surroundings.
Suspend the betting, close the books, and notify the engraver: I've just seen what will surely be this year's Best Picture winner, and it's 12 Years a Slave. There's no question in my mind that this will be our ultimate awards season victor, and the fact that there's still any room for debate at all means that Oscar bloggers were high on more than mountain air last week at the Telluride Film Festival, where the film first sneaked before tonight's official Toronto Film Festival premiere. In fact, I'll go one further … no, two further: Not only will 12 Years triumph in the Best Picture category, but I'd put my money on a historic Best Director win for Steve McQueen, and I'd mark Chiwetel Ejiofor as the frontrunner for Best Actor. Like, what's gonna beat this movie? Freakin' Monuments Men?
To bring you up to speed — though if you're unfamiliar with 12 Years a Slave, that won't last long — the fact-based film stars Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free violinist living in 1841 New York who is drugged by two shady employers (one of whom, randomly, is Saturday Night Live's Taran Killam), then kidnapped from his family, transported to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. Renamed Platt, the badly beaten Northup struggles to sublimate his personality in order to survive, a task that is already dehumanizing but becomes downright untenable when he is sold to the sadistic plantation owner Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender, who previously starred for McQueen in Hunger and Shame).