12 Years a Slave: adapted by John Ridley from the memoir by Solomon Northup; directed by Steve McQueen; starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Paul Giamatti (Freeman), Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford), Paul Dano (Tibeats), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw) and Brad Pitt (Bass) (2013): A terrific film with terrific writing, directing, and acting throughout. This should really win Oscars for director, picture, adapted screenplay, actor (Ejiofor), supporting actor (Fassbender), and supporting actress (a harrowing Lupita Nyong’o). Will it? Probably not. Nonetheless, I think this is probably the best drama of at least the last five years. Certainly the most affecting, harrowing, and moving movie.
Really, there’s not a lot more to say. There’s a lot less on-screen violence and blood than most reviews lead one to believe. It’s the skill of the writing and direction that make this so. In a weird way, Ejiofor’s Solomon Northup, a free Northern African-American kidnapped and sold into slavery in the early 1840’s, is the ultimate real-world Hitchcock hero, the ultimate Wrong Man. And McQueen deploys the principles perfected by Hitchcock to augment our identification with Northup, our horror at his situation, and our loathing of the system he’s trapped within.
There’s a nearly wordless scene involving the aftermath of a near-lynching that is as perfect a visual metaphor for the horrors of slavery as anything in any film I can think of — and the metaphor remains a literal scene of horror as well, one focused on the suffering of a character we’ve grown to admire and the brave kindness of one person.
There are a lot of other great scenes. There’s a soundscape that sometimes menaces the viewer-listener in a manner reminiscent of the non-diegetic industrial-slaughter-house sounds of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, though the sounds here are those of a steam engine heard from within the hold by the kidnapped men and women.
There’s Fassbender, as a horribly explicable monster; and Benedict Cumberbatch, as a slave-owner who knows that what he’s doing is wrong; there’s Lupita Nyong’o, making dolls from corn-husks, whose unsurpassed excellence in picking cotton protects her from exactly nothing in the way of Fassbender’s monstrosity. There’s Brad Pitt as a Canadian who is just good enough without being super-heroic or being made the focus of the film’s goodness, the White Saviour.
There’s a scene at the end that Spielberg and most other modern film-makers would have botched with over-length and crushing mawkishness, but which everyone involved here gives us sparingly and underplayed and movingly perfect because the movie knows how to pull back just that little bit to give its characters and its world their necessary emotional space. This is as about as good as a serious movie gets. Highly recommended.