But here, and hot on the heels of one of last year’s favourites – the similarly themed Lincoln – we have McQueen’s latest, a sublime and sprawling period piece that concerns the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a talented musician and a free man living in New York, who is drugged, kidnapped, and shipped to New Orleans to begin his new life in bondage as ‘Platt’.
Sidestepping hyperbole, and after careful consideration, I suspect the primary reason 12 Years a Slave is such a compelling and consummate experience is due to the fact McQueen nails the Holy Trinity of components that ensure movie success; firstly, the story. Cinema is chock full of tales of heroic strivers making their way back home, but not only is Solomon’s personal story true, grounding it in an awful, inescapable realism, but it’s set within the appalling injustice of man-made circumstance. Many films enrobe their plots of segregation and persecution in a variety of allegorical disguises, but a film about slavery goes to the heart. Secondly, the many performances, contrasting in scale, are truly memorable. There’s Benedict Cumberbatch as (comparatively) benevolent plantation owner William Ford, a man who imposes mandatory weekly gazeboed services every Sunday, and Michael Fassbender, whose Edwin Epps conversely uses the good book as divine proof of his obligation to impose his will over his property. Epps is a particularly detailed character, a man whose sexual obsession with one of his workers, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), seems to repulse him as much as it does his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), who takes out her jealous rage on the young slave in increasingly brutal ways. Weaved amongst these larger roles are Paul Giamatti as the ironically named Theophilus Freeman – a slave dealer who in the ten minutes of screentime afforded to him, might possibly exhibit the greatest lack of humanity towards those whom he trades, and Paul Dano as Tibeats, one of Ford’s overseers who inaugurates the plantation’s newly arrived workforce by serenading them with a horrifically debasing rendition of Run, Nigger, Run. Thirdly, the film is as beautiful as the events onscreen are exhaustingly grim. The large, drooping willow trees that line the river that are gently buffeted by the evening New Orleans breeze; the burning embers of paper and ink whose last remnants blink out like extinguished stars; high dynamically ranged skies that remind one these are the very same skies under which the world still turns today – McQueen’s litters his film with a vast array of intricately composed and indelible images.
But rising above all this is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mighty performance as Solomon. Torn between desperately clinging on to his own identity in order to keep his spirit and hope alive that he may one day be reunited with his wife and children, and assuming the assigned character of Platt so as to evade insubordinate beatings and something possibly worse were his captors to discover the true nature of their stolen property, Northup is man reduced to surviving. There is a bitter acknowledgement of a life of fineries previously enjoyed by Solomon in his former existence as a skilled violinist, that has now become the privilege of his captors, his abilities now put to use for his tormentors rather than his admirers. His breaking and resignation unfolds with a terrible sadness, with every possibility of liberty or escape for Solomon causing your heart to lift along with his. It is, by any standard, an historic performance of nuance and grace.
Ultimately, it takes Epps’ hired Canadian carpenter Samuel Bass, played by a restrained and modest Brad Pitt, to speak what no one dares. “The law says you have a right to hold a nigger,” he tells Epps. “But begging the law’s pardon… it lies. Laws change. Social systems crumble. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, it is a plain fact that what is true and right is true and right for all.” There is a simple kind of poetry in John Ridley’s screenplay that offers sobriety without being overly portentous, and under the keen eye of its director, Steve McQueen has taken universally difficult and unsettling subject matter and made a film that is lyrical and, critically, essential.