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Shortly after it screened at this year’s Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, 12 Years a Slave became the anointed one, the film lauded as so jaw-droppingly powerful it already seemed like a foregone conclusion as 2013’s best picture. But could it really be that moving, that immediately recognizable as Oscar-worthy?
The answer is yes, with the caveat that I think the Oscar race is still too close—-or really, too far away—-to call. Nomination day won’t happen for another three months, and the Academy Awards ceremony won’t take place until March 2, 2014, which is a lifetime away in the trajectory of an awards season. So let’s focus on what really matters, right now, regarding 12 Years a Slave: that it’s a must-see film that examines, unflinchingly, the cruelty, audacity, and inhumanity of slavery in this country in the days before abolition.
It’s one thing to recognize ethically that slavery is wrong. It’s a whole other thing to feel its wrongness. Director Steve McQueen, working from a script adapted by John Ridley from the 1853 autobiography by free man-turned-slave Solomon Northup, makes us experience that injustice in every lash of a whip against black flesh, in the haggling over the price of human beings while those same human beings stand naked in front of their new owners, and in the horror that sets in when an educated, liberated man wakes up suddenly bound in chains. That’s what happens to Northup after a pair of unscrupulous business men lure him away from his home in Saratoga, N.Y., and bring him to Washington, D.C., where he’s drugged, kidnapped, and secreted away to New Orleans to live a decade-plus in servitude with no way to tell his wife and two young children what’s become of him.
As played by a dignified, wonderfully understated Chiwetel Ejiofor, Solomon is our window into this world of masters and servants, where it’s better to feign illiteracy than to demonstrate intelligence and risk abuse at the hands of an unstable white plantation owner like Edwin Epps (an explosive Michael Fassbender). Because we know that Solomon was living an independent, untouched life mere moments ago in movie time, his story is immediately relatable. No legitimately free man deserves to become indentured—-but then again, as this movie brutally reminds us, no man or woman deserves the kind of existence that becomes a soul-crushing routine for the slaves sweating through days of hard labor in cotton fields and nights in which they’re forced to dance for their drunken overlords’ amusement.
McQueen, who previously tackled stark subject matter on a smaller scale in the films Hunger and Shame, frequently holds shots for uncomfortably long stretches of time, refusing to cut away from the emotions that ripple across Solomon’s face as he finds catharsis by singing “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” or to turn the camera elsewhere when he’s left hanging for hours in a noose, gasping for breath while his feet just graze the muddy ground. Ejiofor’s depiction of Solomon’s experience is certainly the heart of 12 Years a Slave, but its most gut-punching performance belongs to newcomer Lupita Nyong’o. The former Yale School of Drama student plays Epps’ “favorite” slave Patsey, a spindly, gifted cotton-picker who endures so much physical abuse from both Epps and his wife (a hardhearted Sarah Paulson) that she believes sweet relief will only be found in death. Patsey mostly handles her desperation with quiet nobility, but when she unleashes her anguish, it’s wrenching. Nyong’o projects all of that with a naturalness that suggests this role is the first in a long, promising career.
There aren’t many missteps in 12 Years a Slave, save one: the decision to place Brad Pitt, who also produced this film, in the role of a carpenter that clashes with Epps regarding the justness of slavery. There’s nothing wrong with Pitt’s performance, which really amounts to a cameo. But the mere presence of the Movie Star, capitalized—-sporting chin fringe that makes him look vaguely Amish—-takes us out of the story for a moment, a brief shift that feels all the more jarring in a film that’s otherwise thoroughly immersive.
Throughout 12 Years a Slave, the audience can legitimately maintain hope that Solomon’s worst pain will end. We know it will; the title of the movie tells us so. But for Patsey and others like her, the suffering presumably went on and on. The weight of that fact is what makes 12 Years a Slave such a significant, necessary piece of work, one that stays with you long after you rise out of your theater seat.