When we discuss films we love or that move us in some way, it is easy to exaggerate in order to express how we feel. Some films, though, deserve to be touted as "modern classics" and as "landmark works" because that is what they are (few though there may be). It can be said, with no hint of hyperbole, that 12 Years a Slave is one of the finest films ever made by one of the most talented directors working today. Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame) has taken the true story of one man's nightmarish existence and crafted a film that is both technically brilliant and emotionally powerful.
The journey of Solomon Northup is a harrowing account of the injustices suffered by not only the slaves of the American South, but also the free black men and women of the North who, before the Civil War and the Fourteenth Amendment, lived in a very tenuous state between safety and danger. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an extremely talented and respected violinist who was born a free black man in New York. He, his wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott), and their two children live a very comfortable life, but the stench of slavery is always drifting around them. Solomon is not actively involved in any anti-slavery movements, but he also doesn't hesitate to excuse a slave who wanders into a general store directly to the face of the slave's master.
When Solomon is approached by two talent scouts - Mr. Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Mr. Hamilton (Taran Killam) - about taking part in a touring musical troupe, Solomon is flattered and accepts the invitation. But, shortly after celebrating his good fortune, Solomon wakes up to find he has been stripped of his name, his freedom and his dignity. He has been abducted and chained, now a slave without his papers to prove his freedom. Slave trader Mr. Freeman (Paul Giamatti) sells Solomon, now called Platt, to a Southern landowner named Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man who is only moderately comfortable with the financial transactions in which he takes part.
From there, Solomon's life scrapes the deepest and darkest depths of humanity. His time with Mr. Ford is punctuated by the violent outbursts of Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford's field hand who doesn't care for Solomon's educated and inquisitive mind. To spare his life, Ford trades Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), but Solomon's chances for survival become even more horrific. Epps is a violent psychopath whose disdain and hatred for blacks is manifested through his unrelenting beatings and torture. For Solomon, all hope seems lost as his future appears to be set in plain sight in front of him.
The brilliance 12 Years a Slave is also its most unsettling element: McQueen's refusal to let the audience off easy the way movies about slavery have in the past. McQueen makes the viewer a part of the story by fixing the camera on the atrocities that are happening and keeping it there without blinking. He is saying to the audience, "These things happened. Look at them," and challenging us to stay engaged, the very least we could do in the memory of those who suffered. There is so little justice doled out in the film because so little justice was ever claimed by those whose lives were treated as unworthy of human (i.e. white) compassion.
But, McQueen's film is not just a landmark work of cinema because of its depiction of slavery. McQueen has crafted a film that, despite its unsavory subject, is absolutely beautiful to watch. Director of photography Sean Bobbitt - who worked with McQueen on both Hunger and Shame - captures every action in every scene with perfect clarity, once again echoing McQueen's desire to leave nothing concealed. McQueen composes every shot as if it was a still photograph with Bobbitt's camera focusing on the emotion behind every one. As he has in the past, McQueen makes use of long, uninterrupted shots as a way to make the actions on screen as real as possible. There are several such instances in the film that will immediately be added as some of the best single-take shots of all time.
12 Years a Slave would be good, but not truly great, without the incredible performance of Ejiofor. His work in the film is one of the most emotionally draining performances in all of cinema (both for the actor and the audience). Ejiofor becomes Solomon not through any major physical transformation, but by channeling the spirit and strength of the man who he is portraying. Solomon is strong, intelligent and, most importantly, patient. Ejiofor commits himself entirely to every scene and every line of dialogue, unleashing a torrent of emotions from hatred to hopelessness. There should be no Best Actor Oscar race this year; Ejiofor has won.
Ejiofor is surrounded by an amazing cast, all of whom give outstanding performances. Matching Ejiofor's emotional intensity is Lupita Nyong'o who plays Patsey, a slave with whom Epps is obsessed. Fassbender is unbelievably good yet again, showing Epps as both a monster and a deeply conflicted human. The many scenes shared by Nyong'o and Fassbender are some of the film's best.
12 Years a Slave is a truly fantastic work of filmmaking and it deserves every accolade that will be bestowed upon it at year's end. It is a modern classic and a reminder of how powerful the medium can be in the hands of a gifted filmmaker.