This isn’t the first scene of 12 Years a Slave, but it’s the one where I knew for certain that I was in the midst of a masterful film. The scene occurs shortly into the picture, moments after freed and famed musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is kidnapped and sold into slavery. During his hellacious boat journey to the south, Solomon angrily describes his confusion while Hans Zimmer’s thundering music underscores the horror, and Joe Walker’s repetitive editing make it clear that there is no escape.
Once Solomon’s boat is docked, so begins the epic and unflinching portrayal of exactly what the film’s title suggests. Initially, Solomon is purchased by seemingly kind plantation owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), but even Ford can’t stop the horrors that Solomon suffers. You see, Solomon is an educated man. He can read and write and exercise deductive reasoning. All things that make him worthless in the eye of a slave owner. Slaves were meant to be workers, not thinkers. Intelligence was a threat, and threats were destroyed. Solomon learns this quickly. He knows to keep his mouth shut and his head down, and do the work he’s told. But, occasionally, his intellect gets the better of him. He mouths off, fights back, and demands respect, only to bear the punishment later.
Soon, Solomon is taken to a place one can only describe as hell on earth, the Epps Plantation, run by the sadistic and unpredictable Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a truly repulsive man, void of rationality and predictability, constantly hazed by drink. He’s a man riddled with his own complexity, which Fassbender brings to life with shocking effectiveness.
Epps is clearly in love with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), one of his best, most productive workers. This love proves to be a source of great confusion for Epps. How can a man who believes black people to be animals fall in love with one of the animals he owns? Epps has no idea, which causes him to commit unspeakable acts of violence toward Patsey. If this were any other movie, those acts of violence would go unseen. But turning away doesn’t interest Steve McQueen. The man set out to tell an honest and unflinching story of slavery, and that’s exactly what he’s done.
By this point, Michael Fassbender is an extension of Steve McQueen. The actor has appeared brilliantly in all of the director’s films, each time demonstrating that his inhibitions know no bounds. Like Bobby Sands in Hunger and Brandon Sullivan in Shame, Edwin Epps is a dangerous character that, if played wrong, could ruin Fassbender’s career. But Fassbender knows just how much humility to give these characters. He never plays Epps as a one-sided monster, but rather a confused and malicious man. With Epps, Fassbender proves yet again that he is the finest actor of his generation.
McQueen has likened his search for Patsey to finding Scarlett O’Hara. He saw hundreds of actresses for the part, but when he came across Nyong’o, he knew he had his girl. Patsey is Nyong’o’s first film role and my god, what a raw talent she is. Her arc in the film makes for some of the most devastating moments in the picture. Get used to Nyong’o’s name, you’re going to be hearing it a lot these next few months.
Let me tell you how good Chiwetel Ejiofor is. Chiwetel Ejiofor is so good, that he can act in silhouette. He’s so good, that even the image of his shadow merits awards attention. As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to life a character of utter importance. Not just on a cinematic level, but on a human level as well. This is the kind of work that will be studied for decades. The kind of work that teachers will show their students, that parents will show their children. This is a performance of such power, such desire, that it moved me to tears many times over. It’s the finest performance of Ejiofor’s already fantastic career. Watching his work, it’s so very clear why he was McQueen’s first and only choice for Solomon.
I often remark on how good a film is, but rarely do I have the opportunity to call a film important. But that’s just what 12 Years a Slave is: an important, true tale of America’s darkest hour. It’s the best, most important film about slavery ever made, and it was helmed by Steve McQueen, a British man who isn’t afraid to tell stories that no other filmmaker would dare tell. Watching 12 Years a Slave is like watching history horrifically unfold before your very eyes. It’s a film that demonstrates film at its most powerful, and certainly its most important. A