Reports circulated this week that Oscar voters have been reluctant to see 12 Years a Slave, the harrowing depiction of Solomon Northup’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) kidnapping and enslavement in 1841.
Despite its status as an immediate frontrunner for best picture—a status it deserves—Hollywood insiders reported that the official Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences screening was only half full. Compare that to Gravity, which was packed to the rafters. While the reports were disappointing to backers of 12 Years a Slave, they shouldn’t be surprising. The film is every bit as brutal as we’ve heard.
The film opens with Northup’s wife and children leaving town for a few weeks. With time to kill, Northup is convinced by a pair of traveling performers to join them in Washington, D.C., where he will be paid handsomely for his fiddling skills. Their business complete, the trio goes out for a nice dinner, replete with good wine—wine that has been drugged.
Northup awakes in chains, and his 12-year nightmare begins. First he must be broken: A pair of slavers viciously beat him with a wooden paddle, then scourge him with a leather whip, until Northup “admits” to being a slave. He is stripped naked and forced to wash in front of others. In a sort of reverse Underground Railroad, he and a gaggle of other newly minted slaves are rushed south of town in the cover of darkness.
From here the film descends into a cavalcade of horrors. Families are split apart at slave auctions, children wailing for their mothers. Cruel overseers take the lash to recalcitrant chattel. Even “good” owners such as Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) fail to see Northup as much more than property to be traded from owner to owner.
Northup winds up at the plantation of one Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic drunk fond of raping his slaves and whipping those who pick less cotton one day than the next. It is here that Northup’s desire to survive meets its harshest test—and where he finds salvation.
Director Steve McQueen wraps the film in a cloak of brutality, dehumanizing Northup and his fellow slaves and forcing us to watch the process take place bit by bit.
The camera lingers on misery. At one point, Northup is about to be lynched—he struck an overseer who was unhappy with his work—before the action is stopped by another overseer who doesn’t want to see the master’s property damaged. We think the overseer is, if not a good man, at least a decent one: He tells Northup that if he runs from the property, he can’t protect him, and puts a stop to the hanging at the last possible moment, the once-free-man’s toes just touching the ground as the noose stretches his neck.
And then the overseer walks away. Northup may not deserve to die, but he does need to be taught a lesson.
The camera stays still. Northup struggles for air; he’s almost, but not quite, choking to death. The shot goes on for fifteen seconds. Thirty. Forty. Forty-five. Life returns to normal behind Solomon as slaves go about their business. But the camera remains locked in place, tension mounting. A slave brings Northup water (which he greedily drinks) and flees when she draws the attention of whites. The sun sets and finally, mercifully, Master Ford shows up to cut Northup down and end his torment.
It is hard to watch, a lesson in cruelty and in the degrading nature of slavery. 12 Years a Slave frequently feels like a catalogue of such lessons, and this is its biggest weakness. Northup’s struggle for survival seems like little more than window dressing, a narrative tool that allows the writer and director to delve into the horrors of slavery.
The quality of the performances keeps the eye riveted to the screen despite our revulsions. Ejiofor gets his chance to shine after a decade of strong, if limited, supporting roles. Fassbender’s turn as Epps is terrifying. A special mention goes to Lupita Nyong’o, whose Patsey is the object of Epps’s “affection.” One feels as if she deserves a special award this Oscar season for “most psychically traumatic role.”
12 Years a Slave is more of an important film than a great one. It is a searing portrait of a dark time and of a terrible practice that nevertheless may leave some audience members feeling somewhat cold.