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'12 Years a Slave' spares no one in its depiction of slavery

Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave" stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man from the North who was kidnapped and enslaved in 1848.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man enslaved in the South in "12 Years a Slave." Credit: Fox Searchlight Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free man enslaved in the South in "12 Years a Slave."
Credit: Fox Searchlight

'12 Years a Slave'
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes

“12 Years a Slave” comes to theaters in the guise of a respectable Oscar-gobbler, reminding us of the fact that slavery is bad. It needs to say more than that, and it does. With relentlessly calm intensity, it depicts the institution as a machine — a pitiless mechanism that’s countered with pitiless direction from filmmaker Steve McQueen. His cameras stare unblinkingly at an institution at work. It’s one thing to say it bred inhumanity in all; it’s another to see it in action.

There’s comfort in the title: Our hero, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) “only” spent a dozen years, starting in 1841, in the system, from which he emerged to write his memoirs. But that’s the only comfort. Even the rare “good one” — Benedict Cumberbatch’s guilt-ridden master, not above acts of kindness and mercy — is still allowing the institution to persist. Northup is introduced as just another cog before a flashback reveals his identity. He was a free man up North — a well-dressed gentleman, a family man, a wonder with the fiddle. A drunken night with the wrong men ends with him awaking in chains, his papers stolen, followed by his name, his clothes and freedom.

Rechristened “Platt,” he enters the machine, from a nice plantation that isn’t so nice to a cruel one, where his master is a drunken lout (Michael Fassbender) in self-hating love with one of his slaves (Lupita Nyong’o). Given the chance to fight (and die) or keep his head down (and likely also die), he chooses the latter. His hands aren’t clean: He has to avert his eyes, saying and doing nothing, as children are stolen from their mothers, as slaves have their backs destroyed by whips. When he too winds up able to walk away, freed, he has to stare ahead so as not to see those he leaves behind.

In his previous features, “Hunger” and “Shame,” McQueen used minimalism (including several long takes) to present their pet issues: respectively, political rebellion (via the IRA) and sex addiction. “Slave” is less showoff-y. One of the few showstopping long takes finds Northup, hung from a tree, spending what feels like an eternity by balancing himself on his tip toes on a mud patch. McQueen’s approach is appropriately cold, but he has deep emotion in Ejiofor. One way Northup stays alive is by hiding his emotions, but Ejiofor has one of the most open faces — and two of the saddest eyes — in movies. It’s a perfect fit between clinical director and humane lead actor.

 
 
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