Watching Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave — or enduring it, as some may say — exposes the previous cowardice of filmmakers addressing a deeply lingering American shame. This isn't a Django revenge fantasy or, worse, another movie about black history being improved by white people. ¶ 12 Years a Slave lays bare our nation-building institution of selling people as chattel, through the experiences of someone uniquely able to escape being owned and write about it. ¶ McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley efficiently adapt the memoir of Solomon Northup, an African-American living as a free man in 1841 New York, in cultured circles as a violinist for hire, when he's kidnapped and sold to slavers. A dozen years later, his free status proven, Northup returned home to his family.
In that regard, Northup's experience wasn't the usual way slaves were obtained or freed. What happens to him in slavery, a brutal, dehumanizing practice never before illuminated in such detail on screen, is the story of millions.
Northup is particularly tragic for how much he must sublimate himself to survive. His intelligence is dangerous; literate slaves weren't trusted. He must parcel out his talents as a musician and engineer cautiously, to not appear smarter than his masters. Northup's sophistication collides with being treated as an animal, a conflict always pouring from Chiwetel Ejiofor's wearily expressive eyes.
McQueen reveals the degrading, repellently civilized process of stripped men, women and children being hawked at a tea party by a seller (Paul Giamatti). Without sentiment they show anguished families separating, likely permanently. There are cruel overseers (Paul Dano, the film's lone ham), and small mercies allowing Northup's first owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) to feel munificent.
There is also his next owner, the sadistic Edwin Epps, played with genteel degeneracy by Michael Fassbender. Epps tolerates nothing from his slaves except total submission, especially young Patsey (stunning newcomer Lupita Nyong'o), whom he rapes at will. Epps' wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), doesn't approve, roiling his frustration with feeling love for a slave, with Northup as a next-best target for rage.
The savagery of Epps' wrath is where McQueen, a filmmaker always in our faces, finds his artistic crescendos. In the film's most shocking scene, Patsey is graphically whipped, howling and circled like a vulture by Sean Bobbitt's camera. The lens shows not only her graphically flayed flesh but the faces of her torturers, each tortured themselves by their actions, for reasons we understand, perhaps with some shocking empathy.
That's a lot of emotional heft for what could be (and has been) simply an exploitative scene. But that's what McQueen does throughout 12 Years a Slave.
The episodic narrative is bumpy but rewarding; scenes skirting the tedious erupt with insight, like Alfre Woodard's turn as a former slave who prospered as Patsey might, and the heartbreaking moment when Northup gives himself over to despair, in the middle of a spiritual sing-along. Mostly there is a rare feeling of watching greatness accumulate on a movie screen.
The closest comparison is Schindler's List, with its unblinking immersion into a historical tragedy, bringing the unspeakable into discussion. But make no mistake. There has never been a movie like 12 Years a Slave, which is Hollywood's shame. Miss it, and that mistake is yours.
Steve Persall can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.