Steve McQueen probably hated Django Unchained. Where Tarantino’s Django Unchained toyed with history’s facts to make the horrors of slavery a plot point, 12 Years a Slave is a film about a torture perpetrated on millions of black men, women and children. McQueen’s third feature isn’t interested in the audience’s comfort or catharsis, and tells a story full of vicious, hard violence and fractured souls. McQueen brings you as close as he possibly can to the horrors of antebellum slavery, not shying from bloody truths, and ultimately reminds us that far, far too often, history’s mad men and their ugly horrors go unpunished and unredressed.
In 1841, a free black man named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was kidnapped and sold into slavery. His wife and children were left to guess at his whereabouts, as for the next 12 years he became a piece of property lost to the moral wilderness of the American south. Solomon was called “Platt,” and learned quickly to keep his past a secret, lest he be beaten or killed for making “false claims.” Eventually Platt finds himself at the plantation of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a manic boozer with delusions of godliness. Epps considers his slave ownership a divine right, and answers all of his hypocrisies with journeys into the bible. Platt spends years in Epps’ custody, doing his best to dumb himself down, in the interest of avoiding any perception that he’s something other than he claims. At last, thanks to a stranger’s kindness, Solomon’s family is able to track him down and return him home. His life as a slave seems to end as abruptly as it began.
Steve McQueen is an intimate filmmaker. It’s not just a matter of close-ups and teary faces, McQueen works with intimacy the way Tarantino works with violence, or Wes Anderson works with colors — it is the wellspring of his voice as a storyteller. You find this intimacy particularly in his characters’ interactions with one another; when Epps pulls Platt from his bed in the night and walks him into the dark with accusations and threats, there is a palpable connection between the two men. This intimacy is conveyed in McQueen’s dialogue, but it has more to do with his presentation. He doesn’t hesitate in allowing a moment to linger far past what’s comfortable, and in these moments he insists that his audience feel what they’re seeing. It’s powerful when it happens, and reminds you that you’re in the hands of a supremely talented filmmaker.
Meanwhile, a myriad of great performances make clear that McQueen is one of those rare directors who can make great actors even better. The team-up of Fassbender and McQueen is a known quantity, with Epps an enthralling monster in their hands, and Chiwetel Ejiofor is heartbreaking and powerful, thoroughly deserving of his plaudits. But it’s ultimately the other, less notable depictions that express McQueen’s talent as an actor’s director. Lupita Nyong’o is effectively a newcomer, and gives what is surely the film’s most compelling performance in Patsey, a young woman born into slavery and so thoroughly tortured by her demented master and his vile, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson), that she truly believes death to be her only escape. Nyong’o is breathtaking in the role, and in what may be the best ensemble of the year, will stay with you longer than any other character.
12 Years a Slave is a film that everyone should see, and that’s ultimately the best compliment I can think to give it; it’s a truly important film. Slavery in film is certainly not uncharted territory, and plenty of influential films on the subject have come and gone; it’s simply that 12 Years a Slave is so terribly real. Even apart from the “based on a true story” element, this is a movie with a stranglehold on veracity, and McQueen insists that you understand Northup’s story to the depths of your soul.