'12 Years a Slave' a visceral look at America's dark past

  • Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) pleads with plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) as Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stands down in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave."

    Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) pleads with plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) as Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) stands down in Steve McQueen's "12 Years a Slave."

Posted10/17/2013 6:00 AM

To understand the raw power that British director Steve McQueen wields in his cinematic masterpiece "12 Years a Slave," we must revisit a scene from Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "Frenzy."

In that 1972 movie, a pretty brunette unwittingly goes upstairs with a man we already know to be a rapist and killer. The camera slowly retreats down the stairs, out the front door and into the busy street where people walk on a seemingly ordinary day with no awareness that a woman is nearby, being assaulted and murdered as they go about their business.


In "12 Years a Slave," McQueen, working from John Ridley's streamlined script, creates his most visceral depiction of the inhumanity of human ownership in a searing, conscience-blanching sequence that easily surpasses the Master of Suspense.

An 1840s Southern plantation manager (Paul Dano) means to hang a slave (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from a tree in the front yard, but only gets as far as putting a noose around the slave's neck and hoisting him up so that he barely stands on his tippy toes.

The slave, Solomon Northup, dangles from the noose, struggling to breathe.

Struggling to stay alive.

For hours. And hours.

Soon, children come out and play games. Other slaves go about their business. But they are extremely aware that a man is nearby, being slowly strangled as they pretend not to notice.

And they can do nothing.

"12 Years a Slave" represents a master symphony of talent. Strong direction, excellent actors and incongruously beautiful cinematography (by Sean Bobbitt) meld in the most disturbing and realistic depiction of slavery I have ever witnessed on the silver screen.

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Part Hollywood biopic, part art house epic, "12 Years" is based on Northup's autobiography, an actual 19th-century best-seller, and the screenplay reportedly follows the text closely as it tells the story of Northup, a free man, father, husband and master musician who enjoys his freedom and the acceptance of the white citizens of Washington, D.C., in 1841.

Two con artists kidnap Northup, who's taken down South and sold as a slave. Without papers to prove his identity, Northup must quickly adjust to his new reality as a piece of white man's property.

His family, his money, his violin, his dignity, his life as he knew it: All gone.

Northup can't even keep his identity. A slave trader gives him the name Platt, simply because that's the name on his sales slip.

From this moment forward, Ejiofor's empathetic performance keeps us tied up into knots as his character learns the wisdom of not revealing he can read, write and think.


During his 12 years in captivity, Northup/Platt is passed among three owners. (There were more in the book). Two -- played by Bryan Batt and the seemingly ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch -- appear to be as decent as slave owners can be in Southern culture.

But the third, a nasty piece of work named Edwin Epps (played by the fearless Michael Fassbender, star of McQueen's "Shame"), possesses no empathy.

An obvious sadist, he enjoys power over his living property. He prides himself on whipping slaves who fail to pick the daily quota of cotton from the hot fields.

Epps' lack of respect for people extends to his own wife (Sarah Paulson) when he flounts the fact he frequently rapes his favorite slave Patsey (a luminous, breakout performance by Lupita Nyong'o), his champion cotton collector at 500 pounds a day.

Quentin Tarantino's revenge fantasy "Django Unchained" contained these more exploitative elements from America's slave era, but it rendered the experience as live-action cartoons spackled with blood and black comedy.

"12 Years" is that rare motion picture which will likely rack up numerous Oscar nominations and other year-end awards, and for good reasons.

It's an important subject given a realistic, respectful treatment without diminishing the cruelty and the inhumane nature of institutionalized slavery.

This movie has been created with its contributing artists firing on all creative cylinders. Supporting roles by executive producer Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard are pings of light in an already enlightening narrative.

They back up Ejiofor and Nyong'o, delivering two of the most electrifying film performances of this young decade so far.

"I don't want to survive," Northup tells a fellow slave early in his captivity. "I want to live."

But as "12 Years a Slave" harshly demonstrates, a slave cannot choose.

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