Last year, watching Quentin Tarantino’s pop slave drama Django Unchained, the cruelty on-screen could be hideous and shocking, but one thing it never was, at least to me, was terrifying. Even when the white-on-black violence left you drop-jawed, it was still part of a heightened Tarantino landscape of thrills and sick spectacle and kicky dark danger and revenge. But in Steve McQueen’s agonizingly magnificent 12 Years a Slave, which premiered last night in Toronto, a sense of terror is alive in almost every scene. To describe even one moment of this movie as a “kick” would be obscene. It evokes the lives of African-American slaves as the nightmare it was, with violence spun into a daily fabric of brutality, one that’s neither heightened nor exaggerated, just scarily real. Forget the earnest and epochal (but, in hindsight, not really raw enough) TV mini-series Roots, forget the baroque exploitation of Mandingo, and – despite the overstated accolades it received – forget Django. As a drama of the slave experience, 12 Years a Slave renders them all irrelevant. It is a new movie landmark of cruelty and transcendence.
The movie, which is based upon a true story, starts in 1841 and is about a free black man in Saratoga, NY, a musician named Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who walks around town in a natty gray suit and matching bowler hat, secure in his talent and in the courtly modesty of his life as a husband and father. He has two children, a boy and a girl, and he loves them tenderly. He has everything that a man – not a 19th-century black man, but any man – could want. But then, when his family is out of town, he takes up an offer to go on a trip to Washington, D.C., with a couple of traveling entertainers. They say that they’ll pay him generously, and when the trip is winding down, and they’re all having dinner at a ritzy restaurant, drinking wine, and the two men give him even more money than he was promised, we get a queasy feeling that this is all too good to be true. And it is. Solomon isn’t being hired for his talents. He’s being trafficked.
A moment later, he wakes up in a cold stark prison cell, with a spider web of chains shackling his arms and legs. His wine was drugged, he has been stripped of his identity and kidnapped, and he is about to be placed on a riverboat and sent down to Louisiana, where he’ll be sold into slavery. Gazing at his chains, as if he were in a bad dream that he simply had to wake up from, the great actor Chiwetel Ejiofor places us right inside his skin, and all of a sudden, we’re sharing the horror movie that Solomon’s life has become. Ejiofor has the noble sculpted features of an ancient Roman soldier, and he may also have the most eloquent eyes of any actor working. Now twinkly, now mournful, they are oversize orbs of pure expression, and in this movie, they need to be, because Solomon can’t often speak what he’s feeling. What we read in his intensely private, thousand-yard stare is the agony of a man robbed of freedom, but also the moment-to-moment recunciation of that despair. Whatever happens, he will persevere. He will survive. He will know misery, but he will not fall into the trap of madness. He will transcend.
McQueen has made two previous features: the sex-addict drama Shame (2011), which I found oddly and almost perilously unconvincing, and his first film, Hunger (2008), about the 1981 IRA prison hunger strike led by Bobby Sands – a movie that focused, with purity and power, on the agony of the body, and how that carried the devotion of the soul. 12 Years a Slave reaches back to the McQueen of Hunger, but it’s an even more lyrically wrenching and intense movie. There’s a scene early on in which Solomon gets sold, by a grossly lighthearted slave trader (Paul Giamatti), and McQueen puts the spotlight not on Solomon but on the woman next to him, who is being separated from her two children. Her plight echoes Solomon’s, and it lends an underlying sadistic aura to every cruelty that follows. Whatever physical pain will be involved, the agony is really spiritual: parents cut off from their children, each made dead to the other. That’s not just slavery, that’s soul murder.
A free man kidnapped and placed into slavery may, historically speaking, be a relative anomaly (though it happened often enough). McQueen’s horrifying inspiration is to realize that Solomon’s plight can lead us into the experience of slavery far more than that of a born-and-bred slave. American slavery was, among other things, the world’s most egregious example of Stockholm Syndrome: Those who lived their entire lives as slaves were coerced into a perverse identification with their “masters.” But in giving us the story of a proud free man who becomes a slave, and must therefore learn to answer insults with silence, to bear whippings, to pretend that he’s an inarticulate toady who can’t read or write, McQueen makes us feel the extreme unnaturalness of slavery. For, of course, it’s not just Solomon who is really a “free man.” So is every slave.
12 Years a Slave is based on a book, published in 1853, that Solomon Northup wrote about his ordeal, and McQueen, working from a superb script by John Ridley, has structured the movie as a diary-like series of anecdotes. There are characters we get to know, like the two slave owners Solomon is sold to – the first (Benedict Cumberbatch) relatively benign, the second (Michael Fassbender) a snarling, lusty, despotic son-of-a-bitch. There are motifs and developments, scenes of hope and fear and intensity. Yet there is no trumped-up movie-ish drama, no “arcs,” no filler to pad out the experience we’re watching. The crushing reality of Solomon’s day-to-day existence is the drama; that’s all the drama the movie needs. The organic artistry of McQueen’s approach hinges on what he does visually: He stages scenes without a lot of cuts, using his camera as a kind of peering, gliding invisible witness. He captures not just the barbarity of slavery but the degraded nature of the relationships we’re seeing, and he does it with a terrifying intimacy. Edwin Epps, the Fassbender character, is depicted as a mean and wily psychologist of racial obsession, and when he discovers that Solomon has tried to get a white laborer to send a letter up north for him, he takes the slave outside and holds his face close, saying he knows what’s up, and Solomon defuses the situation with an ingeniously crafty lie that he must sustain for several minutes, without a tremor, while staring his overseer right in his taunting, skeptical eye. This is gripping filmmaking, with nothing allowed to get in the way of the super-close-up interaction on screen.
Edwin develops an obsession with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the teenage slave girl he regularly rapes, and their “relationship” becomes part of a debased triangle, since Edwin’s wife (Sarah Paulson) is all too aware of his obsession. The way this plays out is that Patsey, who picks more cotton each day than any of the other slaves (500 pounds of it), gets subjected to the torments of the damned, and the performance of Lupita Nyong’o is brilliant beyond words. She’s like Falconetti in Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, going to a place of private craziness and communion beyond pain, to the point that Patsey begs Solomon to take her down to the river and drown her. The most twisted moment in the movie comes when Solomon is forced to whip her himself, and McQueen plays a startling cinematic trick: He shows us the beating by focusing on the man holding the whip – a Hollywood cliché – and then, just as we’ve been lulled into that old familiar it’s-only-a-movie mode, the camera, without a cut, spins around to show us what the whipping is doing. The mortification of flesh hits us in our solar plexus.
12 Years a Slave lets us stare at the primal sin of America with open eyes, and at moments it is hard to watch, yet it’s a movie of such humanity and grace that at every moment, you feel you’re seeing something essential. It is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s extraordinary performance that holds the movie together, and that allows us to watch it without blinking. He plays Solomon with a powerful inner strength, yet he never soft-pedals the silent nightmare that is Solomon’s daily existence. The ultimate cruelty he’s subjected to isn’t the beatings or the humiliation. It is that he is ripped from his family, blockaded away from all that he is. Yet such is the force of Ejiofor’s acting that he made me think of Nina Simone’s sublime rendition of “Ain’t Got No/I Got Life,” the two songs from Hair that she transformed into an African-American gospel epiphany. Simone sang about how she, too, had known what it was to lose everything (“Ain’t got no clothes, no country, no friends, no nothing, ain’t got no God”), and because she had lost everything, she had only one thing left: She had life. 12 Years a Slave is a movie about a life that gets taken away, and that’s why it lets us touch what life is.