Movie Review by MOIRA MACDONALD, of the Seattle TimesLate in Steve McQueen’s astonishing “12 Years a Slave,” we get a long, still close-up on Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a formerly free black man in upstate New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the 1840s American South.
What followed were years of unthinkable abuse, backbreaking labor, fading dreams of his unreal-seeming former happy life with his wife and children.
That pause in the movie, coming at a time when neither we nor Solomon can bear much more, lets us just look at his face — and Ejiofor, with no sound and little movement, shows us what hopelessness looks like. He’s emptied out, his spirit chipped away; he’s a man who, at the hands of other men, has been nearly destroyed.
“12 Years a Slave” isn’t easy to watch, and it shouldn’t be; it’s one man’s tragedy, but it’s also the tragedy of countless thousands of souls beaten down, literally and metaphorically.
The film, based on a memoir written by Northup after his ordeal, begins with a glimpse of the Northup family’s happy life in New York, where he was a musician and craftsman.
Those smiling moments are over quickly: Under the guise of hiring Northup to play for a party out of town, a pair of crooks kidnap him and turn him over to a slave trader (Paul Giamatti). The would-be slaves stand naked in a gracious home’s parlor, as customers are invited to “inspect at your leisure.”
So begins 12 years of Northup’s life, on two plantations: one run by a well-meaning yet ineffectual preacher (Benedict Cumberbatch), who eventually sells Northup to the vicious, drunken Epps (Michael Fassbender). We see Northup strung up by the neck for a transgression, his toes barely touching the dark plantation mud as he dangles, near-dead, on a hot afternoon. We see Epps’ slaves, rousted from their beds late at night, forced to dance for their master’s pleasure; it’s an almost unbearable demonstration of misery in movement.
We meet Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young slave routinely raped then beaten by Epps, who endures by working harder than any man on the plantation. And we watch as Northup painstakingly scratches the names of his wife, daughter and son — “Anne Margaret Alonzo” — on his violin; an instrument that will later be destroyed in a moment of hopeless, wordless rage.
“12 Years a Slave” wouldn’t be as effective if it weren’t perfectly cast, performed with searing honesty, smoothly written (by John Ridley, from Northup’s memoir) and unflinchingly filmed; you’ll want to look away, particularly during a sequence involving Patsey near the end, but you won’t. It’s a chapter in American history that’s seen too little screen time, and it will haunt you long afterward.
“I don’t want to survive,” says Northup early on, refusing to accept his change in circumstances. “I want to live.”
Macdonald reviews films for the Seattle Times. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org