That desire to live drives Solomon as he’s transported to a strange new world, a lushly beautiful one filled with malevolence, where people do what they can to get by amid all kinds of horror. There’s Eliza (Pariah’s Adepero Aduye), whose children were sold away from her, and so, all she does is cry 24-7, sobbing loudly for all to hear and signaling her distress, much to her mistress’s disgust. But her emotions are the only thing that Eliza can control. Then there’s Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), a savvy slave at a neighboring plantation who learned early on that the way to a slaver’s heart was through his crotch.
In this unsettling world, there are moments of kindness, but the kindness can be capricious, changing in an instant. Take Ford, the seemingly good-hearted slave owner (Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock), who sells Solomon to a much meaner master.
McQueen is a director who’s not afraid to go there. His 2001 film, Shame, also starring Fassbender, was a disturbing look at the despair undergirding one man’s addiction to sex. In McQueen’s hands, Solomon Northup is a fully fleshed-out person — not a hero, but an ordinary man trying to survive under truly extraordinary circumstances. The tools in McQueen’s arsenal: extreme close-ups, silent images of black men wearing muzzles, scarred backs and faces and missing limbs, interspersed with hazy flashbacks to Solomon’s previously prosperous life with his wife and family, where white people called him “Mr. Northup” rather than “nigger.”
There are times here when the cruelty the slaves encounter seems way over the top, beyond reality, particularly once Solomon ends up on Epps’ plantation and the crazy really kicks in. It’s a lot of a lot.
Despite the excessive violence, though, there is an air of restraint to 12 Years. Much of this is thanks to Ejiofor, who acquits himself admirably in the role of a lifetime. All of the performers — from newcomer Nyong’o and Woodard to Paul Giamatti as a greedy slave trader and Brad Pitt (who produced 12 Years) as the lone abolitionist — are uniformly stellar. But this is Ejiofor’s movie.
Late in the film, Solomon, who’d always held himself slightly aloof from those who were born into slavery, stands by a makeshift grave. A slave has dropped dead on the job, right there in the cotton fields, and there’s just enough time to dig a hole and sing a song before sending him on to glory. A woman belts out, “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” and the others join in. Solomon stands silently at first, resisting. And then the camera homes in tight on his face as he surrenders. His face contorts, his mouth opens and he sings — a man desperately trying to find some peace in hell.
Teresa Wiltz is a journalist based in Washington, D.C.