Any time a film tackles history, especially history’s darkest corners, there is a temptation to paint in big strokes, to overstate and to preach. The most miraculous thing about “12 Years a Slave” is that it derives most of it’s power from an uncanny quietness; so many scenes are allowed to breath; to play out and then move to a place of reflection. Director Steve McQueen understands the importance and effectiveness of watching something happen and then lingering. It cannot be overstated how this approach leads to the film’s emotional resonance sneaking up on you. It slowly builds and expands until it washes over you. It’s powerful stuff and it never feels forced or obvious. At the center of the film’s emotional core is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Solomon is a free man living in Saratoga, New York with his family (the film begins in 1841). He is a skilled carpenter and violin player. He is offered a two week job playing violin in a traveling show by two charming men. But after a night on the town Solomon awakens to find himself in chains and on his way down south to be sold as a slave. He is renamed “Platt”. The next 12 years of Solomon’s life are spent enduring daily slave life, desperately seeking a way out of his situation. He struggles to hold on to the dignity and mindset of the man he was in New York, fearing that at any moment it will slip away from him. He stands next to men every day that carry that expression of empty surrender. He fears that fate worse than death itself. Throughout the film’s running time McQueen keeps his camera tight on Ejiofor’s face; his expressive eyes absorb the horrors around him and attempt to mask the turmoil. The longer the camera holds on him, the deeper the moment resonates.
McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have created a Southern plantation world that is anything but morally clear cut or simple in characterization. The social dynamics of both the plantation owners and the slaves are written/performed with an unusual amount of complexity. The performances are uniformly strong. Only a late in the film (and brief) appearance by Brad Pitt feels like a small misstep -his immediate, movie star presence was a distraction for me. Otherwise, this is certainly one of the best films of the year. Brutal, lyrical, meditative and emotionally honest, “12 Years a Slave” is the best kind of film because it excels on all fronts. It doesn’t wring it’s hands or wallow in the carnage. It doesn’t amplify or simplify the events or the emotions. It takes this truly amazing story set in the most painful period of our country’s history and manages to find moments/beats you don’t expect which in turn provide fresh perspective. Highly recommended.