If you were around in 1977, you remember the impact the television miniseries “Roots” had on the national psyche. Millions sat transfixed as the history of American slavery was spelled out in all its awfulness, told mostly through the eyes of a single slave and his family.
That's what “12 Years a Slave” aspires to do on the big screen, and succeeds at the highest level of craft and artistry. It's at least 1977 since we've had a depiction this raw and real of what slavery was like, told from a black man's point of view.
More than once I wanted to turn my eyes away. I couldn't. Director Steve McQueen's movie is that good — and that painful.
While “Roots” was based on Alex Haley's novel, “12 Years a Slave” is based on the 1853 book of the same title, in which Solomon Northrup gives a firsthand account of what happened to him. A free black man living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1841, Northup is lured by a couple of circus promoters to Washington, D.C., because of his skill playing the violin.
There he is drugged, sold into slavery and smuggled southward to the plantations of Louisiana.
“If you want to survive, say and do as little as possible,” another enslaved black man advises Northup. “Tell no one who you are or that you can read and write.”
“I don't want to survive,” Northup replies. “I want to live.”
The difference between the two is laid bare here. McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”) goes unflinchingly to painful places: a mother being sold away from her children; the rape of a female slave by a sadistic plantation owner; whippings that slash to the bone; a loss of hope so acute that one slave begs another for mercy killing; the nonchalance of a lynching.
Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men,” “Kinky Boots”) gives the performance of his career, bringing a quiet dignity and strength to the role of Northup. You can see the strength of will it takes for him to reject hatred and bitterness in spite of his plight.
Equally riveting: Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps, an often drunk and sadistic plantation owner who makes life hell for all his slaves, even pitting them against each other by weighing how much cotton they pick. The loser gets a whipping. Fassbender embodies the cost of slavery to the enslaver, though there are other whites in this movie as well who clearly know what they are doing is wrong even as they read from the Bible and do mental gymnastics to convince themselves otherwise.
I think I was most impressed with newcomer Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, Epps' favorite slave. Her heartbreaking performance is what's most seared into my brain, including a scene in which procuring a cake of soap nearly costs her her life.
Spot-on in smaller roles: Sarah Paulson as Epps' jealous and spiteful wife; Paul Giamatti as a slave trader whose “sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” Paul Dano as an overseer whose station in life is so low he takes pleasure in abusing the only people who rank below him, Benedict Cumberbatch (“The Fifth Estate”) as a slightly more compassionate plantation owner, and Brad Pitt as a traveling carpenter who voices his disapproval of slavery to Epps, leading Northup to confide in him.
The emotional moments that leave you holding your breath keep coming to the end, even beyond the reunion with his family, as subtitles tell us what happened next.
“12 Years a Slave” has all the earmarks of an award-season contender, combining great acting, cinematography, editing, directing and writing. It clearly ranks with the year's best in cinema.
* * * * *
12 Years a Slave
Quality: Four stars (out of four)
Director: Steve McQueen
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Michael K. Williams, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano
Rating: R for violence, cruelty, nudity, brief sexuality
Running time: 2 hours, 13 minutes
Theaters: Aksarben, Majestic, Oakview