'12 Years a Slave': Brutal, honest

COLIN COVERT | Updated 10/31/2013

Director McQueen doesn’t flinch from slavery’s horror.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in “12 Years a Slave.”
Fox Searchlight

“12 Years a Slave” is a stinging corrective, a film about plantation slavery as seen from inside the cage. It is not a rousing story of rebellion against bondage, but a somber account of enduring it. The film is both brutal to watch and stunning to contemplate, powerfully challenging audiences — particularly white audiences — to examine their consciences.

English director Steve McQueen takes its story from the memoir of Solomon Northup, a literate free black family man, carpenter and violinist. In 1841 he was lured from his home in Upstate New York, drugged, stripped of his identity and sold as a laborer in Louisiana. From the moment Northup awakes to find himself a chained captive in a white man’s slave pen, he is in an unending nightmare.

Most of the film’s scenes are constructed around a single, indelible image of Northup being beaten with a wooden bat by his captors. The camera alternates between shots of Northup’s agonized expression and his captor’s sadistic scowl. The bat finally breaks, and so does something inside Northup. From that moment on, his struggle is not for freedom primarily, but for survival and sanity.

The film is rife with villains, dupes and heroic characters, but it insists on the human ambiguity of each one. Master Ford, Northup’s first owner, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a cultured, pious-hearted Christian. He gives Platt, as the slave is now called, a fiddle, and forcefully intervenes when a brutal foreman abuses him. Yet Ford sells him to another plantation. The man is his property, after all.

Michael Fassbender is terrifying as Edwin Epps, Northup’s vicious new owner. He quotes scripture as well to justify lashing slaves who fails to deliver his daily cotton quota.

We might wish that Northup were an intrepid hero, but he’s a terrified everyman. At one point, he is forced to lash his friend Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, in a riveting debut), because Epps knows that will further break his spirit. Under slavery even friendship can be perverted into a tool of oppression.

The film has a nuanced understanding of slavery, a legal status that was not necessarily permanent. It notes that indentured white debtors worked and suffered alongside black slaves. Alfre Woodard has a standout cameo as a cynical former slave who charmed and married her owner and holds court on her mansion’s portico, with slaves pouring her tea. Encountering such characters reinforces Northup’s hope for rescue. When Brad Pitt arrives as a Canadian with abolitionist sympathies, the machinery of justice begins to work. For one man.

The film is not a flawless masterpiece. Still, it is a bold, important provocation. The key scene occurs at midpoint as Northup endures a terrible peril as background characters go about their business, afraid to intervene. It’s a reminder that looking the other way supports injustice.

See the film. Read the original (Northup’s engrossing narrative is readily available as an e-book). Think about it deeply.

12 Years a Slave

⋆⋆⋆⋆ out of four stars

Rating: R.

Where: Uptown.