Man’s inhumanity to man has never been more vividly conveyed to mainstream audiences than in “12 Years a Slave.”
Hollywood has revised, watered down or wholly ignored America’s slave trade for decades. Now this devastating real-life drama surfaces as an Oscar front-runner by embedding its hero into a system so deeply monstrous it’s hard to fathom it was ever commonplace in the “land of the free.”
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British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (“Children of Men”) excels as Solomon Northup, a free-born New Yorker of 1841. A husband, father and working musician, Northup is lured to Washington, D.C., under the impression of high-paying work. But it’s a ruse.
He’s kidnapped, beaten into submission and forced to pretend he’s a recaptured slave. Northup gets ferried to New Orleans and sold at auction to a Louisiana plantation owner. What follows is his dozen-year attempt to stay alive long enough to escape.
“Tell no one who you are,” a fellow victim advises. “And tell no one you can read and write.”
Northup endures as a field hand, cutting timber and sugar cane before ending up picking cotton for Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), described as “a man of hard countenance.” That’s an understatement for this hard-drinking purveyor of enigmatic cruelty. His “relationship” with his best picker slave, Patsey (the revelatory Lupita Nyong’o), draws the swelling wrath of his wife (ice-queen Sarah Paulson).
For a slave on the plantation, being master’s favorite is often worse than being his scorned.
Director Steve McQueen approaches the material with less detachment than his previous “Shame” and “Hunger.” Thematically, the story (which John Ridley of “Three Kings” adapted from Northup’s memoir) fits right in with his other two efforts as examinations of the tortured flesh. (McQueen could well make Academy Awards history: No black director has won, and no movie directed by a black filmmaker has won best picture.)
One signature moment in “12 Years a Slave” finds Northup narrowly saved from lynching but left suspended by the rope as punishment, only his tiptoes preventing suffocation. He hangs for hours as slave children play and others go about their daily routines. This is simply how it is on the plantation.
McQueen shoots this lingering scene from a variety of angles, the beauty of the surroundings contrasting the ugliness of the situation. It’s one of many times juxtaposition comes into play. Conversations from one episode bleed into another. Incidental music overlaps with Hans Zimmer’s eerily aggressive score (featuring percussive sounds like hammers striking anvils), often with discordant results.
A racist work song delivered by Northup’s first overseer (Paul Dano) continues evocatively as the scene shifts to the benign plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) imparting a sincere sermon to the workforce. McQueen emphasizes that religious faith and slavery exist not as an either/or proposition, but all at once. Hand in hand.
This is not the first time Northup’s tale has made it on screen. Kansan Gordon Parks directed a 1984 PBS movie titled “Solomon Northup’s Odyssey.” As with this and the acclaimed 1977 miniseries “Roots” (the most-watched TV program of its era) that covers some of the same ground, the subject matter remains secondary compared to its unusually bold presentation, its lack of restrictions.
“12 Years a Slave” is essential because its raw impact is unrivaled.
(At the Glenwood Arts, Independence, Palace, Ward Parkway.)