12 Years a Slave
Directed by Steve McQueen
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch
Rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality
2 hr. 14 min.

This is perhaps one of the most difficult films I’ve ever had to watch. Not just for the subject matter, but for the straightforward way in which director Steve McQueen tells the story of a black man from New York who was kidnapped, sold into slavery and forced to endure the brutal hardships of plantation life in pre-Civil War Louisiana.

Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir published in 1853, the viewer must witness what Northup endured on a day-to-day basis. It’s almost too much to bear. But for the sake of millions of slaves forced onto plantations throughout the South and the Caribbean, it should be watched. It’s a dark chapter in our history, an incomprehensible chapter, but 150 years ago it was a reality as common as going to the store.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a farmer and fiddle player living in upstate New York. Northup was duped into going to Washington, D.C. as part of an entertainment troupe. Drugged and sold off to a slave trader, he finds himself trapped on a river boat with other kidnapped blacks headed for New Orleans. There he is sold to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and forced to work in the fields.

By 1840 standards, Ford’s treatment of Northup is fairly humane, but when Northup, now named Platt, gets into a fight with a field manager named Tibeats (Paul Dano), he finds himself sold to another plantation owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who has no humanity whatsoever. Now Platt, with little chance of ever seeing his family again, must find the strength to endure the rest of his life without hope.

McQueen, whose previous works include the provocative Hunger and Shame, takes a more measured approach to this film, perhaps choosing to let Northup speak for himself. With a minimalist touch, he lays out the story in such a way that it seems to unfold naturally.

Adding expressionist touches here and there — shots of the Louisiana landscape and sky, an extended scene where Platt hangs by his neck for hours, a long pan of Platt’s face as he looks out across the field — McQueen seems to trade out the dreariness of day-to-day labor with sudden bursts of violence. It’s a means to fully capture the routine and the horror of slave life — prolonged, unpredictable and unforgiving.

Ejiofor, a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, uses his considerable acting talent to portray the full range of emotions that Northup/Platt experiences:  shock, grief, desperation, kindness, civility, anger and pain. Credit also Lupito Nyong’o for capturing the agony and spirit of Patsey, a young black girl who is both a slave and a victim of her rapist landowner.

But the successful trick of this film is providing the white slave owners with an equally full palette:  Cumberbatch as a kind man, yet still in debt and willing to sell Platt to protect himself; Epps, a high-minded Christian nagged by his spouse and haunted by his lust for Patsey; Sarah Paulson as Epps’ bitter wife tormented and driven to hate by her husband’s frequent infidelities.

This is not a film you will enjoy. It’s filled with desperate human suffering and the type of cruelty that we often associate with third-world dictators. But this cruelty is a fact still evident among numerous historical artifacts and archives.

12 Years a Slave may be repellent, but it compels us to remember. Northup was one of millions. His history is unique in that he escaped. Many others did not and lived their entire lives under an American totalitarian regime.

What McQueen and cast do is bring this one small story to life — clearly, eloquently — as if holding these facts in front of our face is a necessity that forces us to acknowledge the evil perpetrated and the need never to forget.