(The Root) — You don't go to see 12 Years a Slave expecting a good time at the multiplex — the title alone is enough to disabuse anyone of that notion. No doubt about it, it's a hard, hard slog, disturbing and despairing, gnawing at the spirit long after the last credits have rolled off the screen.
You should see it anyway.
The filmmakers have said that 12 Years, which opens in limited release on Friday, is the first film to tackle slavery head on. And while that isn't technically true — Django Unchained, Glory and Lincoln are a few that come immediately to mind — this is, without question, the most visceral, you-are-there treatment of the subject that I've seen. Where Quentin Tarantino's Django was the ultimate revenge fantasy, all blood splatters and Grand Guignol theatrics, 12 Years seeps into the psyche. You can't watch it without getting caught up in feelings of fear and mounting dread.
An example: A slave is being punished. He's strung up to a tree and left there hanging for hours upon hours, balancing on the tips of his toes, the only things keeping him from a snapped neck. All around him, life goes on. The only sounds are a symphony of cicadas in the Southern heat — and the man's grunts as he struggles to keep his feet on the ground.
You can't shake this off.
Directed by Steve McQueen and starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, 12 Years is based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black New Yorker who was drugged, kidnapped and sold into captivity in 1841. As the title suggests, Northup labored on plantations for 12 years before he finally won back his freedom. He was one of the lucky ones, living to write about his experiences years later. That memoir is the basis of this film. The realness of Northup's story lends the film a sense of urgency.
It's interesting that many of the people involved in the making of this very American story aren't Americans: McQueen is a black Brit of West Indian parentage; Ejiofor is Anglo-Nigerian; Michael Fassbender, who plays the deranged slaver Epps, is German-Irish; and Lupita Nyong'o, who plays Patsey, the unwilling object of Epps' sexual obsession, is Mexican by way of Kenya.
Perhaps it takes an outsider to truly take on this topic. But then again, Colonial-era chattel slavery had international reach — and still has impact today. And as the film demonstrates, slavery infected everyone who participated in that "peculiar institution," from the enslaved, who had no say in their own lives, to the slave owners who mortgaged themselves to the hilt so that they could own other human beings.
After Solomon is put in chains, beaten and shoved onto a boat heading for a Louisiana slave market, he quickly learns that all it takes is one false move, or one brave one, to end up dead. You protest mistreatment — yours or others — at your peril.
"If you want to survive," another enslaved "freeman" tells him, "Tell no one who you really are. And don't tell anyone you can read or write — unless you want to be a dead nigger."
"I don't want to survive," Solomon tells him. "I want to live."
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.
"You're an exceptional nigger," Ford tells Solomon, "but I fear no good will come of it."
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.
Teresa Wiltz is senior staff writer at Stateline, the journalism outlet of the Pew Charitable Trusts.