What makes 12 Years a Slave so incisive isn't that it is a particularly apt depiction of slavery. It's that director Steve McQueen makes the viewer feel like it is. In his previous film Shame, McQueen got us to identify with a lascivious sex addict. In 12 Years, his third film (and his third entry in the New York Film Festival), McQueen does something quite ingenious by choosing to follow the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). In electing to tell of the ordeal of an educated, free African American from the North, kidnapped and sold into slavery, he makes Northup's fear and outrage our own.
Ejiofor's performance of Northup's circumstance suddenly makes it a stunningly appreciable one. Without diminishing the fact that the slave experience is as unique to African Americans as the Holocaust is to Jews, McQueen and Ejiofor put us into a black slave's shoes more ably than perhaps any other filmmaker has before. This is not Amistad in which our difficulty in fully identifying with its hero Cinque comes from the fact that his way of life before he is captured in tribal Africa is so completely alien to us. And let's not even discuss Django Unchained, a more recent film that does its subject a disservice by playing more like a revenge fantasy. Early in 12 Years, we see a flashback to Northup's domestic life before he was so brutally kidnapped and—despite the fact that it's 1841 Saratoga, New York—it's not much different than ours. He tucks his children in bed in a comfortable home. He bids goodbye to his wife as she leaves for a business trip. And he accepts a job playing his fiddle for a couple of respectable looking magicians on tour with their circus. Not long after he finds himself in chains in a slave pen, which one damning reverse crane shot reveals is hidden right under Congress's nose in Washington, D.C.
After a fellow captive advises Northup to keep his head down, to resist acting smarter or more skilled than any other slave in order to survive, Northup laments:
Days ago, I was with my family. Now you tell me not to tell anyone who I am. That's the way to survive? Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live.Of course, Northup is disabused of any temptation to stand up for himself after seeing another slave stabbed to death with nary a question asked after he stands up for a female captive about to be raped. He then watches the same woman separated from her two children out of spite from a slave owner who is offended by her pleas for her kids to be purchased along with her.
12 Years is made up of poetic impressions that build up on its canvas, layer by layer so that it gradually becomes more and more dispiriting, not least because they are evoked repeatedly like once forgotten memories starting to resurface after a trauma. The way Northup tightens the strings on his fiddle, winding them to the point where they might snap; the way he tries to figure out how to make the blackberry juice turning at the bottom of his plate into a form of ink in order to write a letter to friends up North; the way the deep welts on any number of slaves we meet are just as much a form of writing that history will gradually acknowledge in its indictment of the abuse heaped on innocent black men, women, and children; all of these play out in indelible moments that McQueen and director of photography Sean Bobbitt capture in inserts so intrusively close that they seem like they come from Northup's point of view, and by extension, ours.
Were Ejiofor's performance the only one we identify with 12 Years a Slave would already be a major success. But John Ridley's script provides us with facets to all of the movie's characters that, while they don't make them entirely sympathetic, at least provide us with some understanding of what motivates them. In the role of Northup's most abusive owner, Edwin Epps, McQueen casts his longtime film alter ego, Michael Fassbender. Epps could easily have been a mustache-twirling villain, but instead, he is presented as a paranoid, incapable of fathoming that his complicated feelings for his most prized field hand Patsy (the marvelous Lupita Nyong'o) might just mean that he is passionately in love with her, a fact not lost on his jealous wife (Sarah Paulson). Perhaps McQueen's casting of Fassbender specifically in that role is an indication of how the black British director finds the concept of slavery as confusing as it is close to the bone. But in giving us well-rounded characters on all sides of the slavery issue to consider, McQueen goes one better than many filmmakers before him. Not only do we empathize with the frightened Northup, but we are judged as guilty as those who enslaved him by, even for just a moment, entertaining the notion that the plantation class might have just not understood what they were doing.
12 Years a Slave is playing at the 51st New York Film Festival at 7:30 pm and 10:40 pm Tuesday, October 8th, and 5 pm Sunday, October 13th at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater, 165 West 65th St (north side between Broadway and Amsterdam, upper level), New York, NY 10023. For ticket information go online here, or call (212) 721-6500.