There are many scenes in 12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueens exquisitely rendered take on a true story of one mans struggle with the peculiar institution, that sear themselves into the mind. But theres one thats especially haunting.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man in pre-Civil War upstate New York who has been abducted and sold into slavery in the South, is being punished for turning the whip on one of his overseers (Paul Dano). He is hanged from a tree but, because his toes just barely touch the ground, he doesnt die but dangles there, his tortured breathing the only soundtrack.
Meanwhile, life goes on around him unfettered. Except for one young woman who surreptitiously brings him a cup of water, the other slaves quietly ignore him. The very proper mistress of the plantation (Sarah Paulson) looks on from her porch, unconcerned.
Its an emotionally devastating scene, made all the more powerful by the way McQueen (the movies Shame and Hunger) shoots it. Theres no music and it lingers for what seems like forever, conveying the feeling of looking at a particularly powerful painting. (Thats not at all surprising considering McQueen came to filmmaking from visual arts.)
But the much talked-about 12 Years a Slave is more than a beautifully shot art piece. Its history made violently real. Unlike last years movie about slavery, Quentin Tarantinos boisterous but bankrupt Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave feels uncomfortably real.
While the likes of Roots and Amistad begin with a focus on the recently enslaved not long out of Africa, 12 Years (based on Northups memoir) starts with a different figure: a black man born free in North America who has no firsthand knowledge of slavery. He is married, has a family, and is respected in his community by white and black alike.
An ardent violinist, Northup is lured to Washington, D.C., by two men with the promise of a big payday for his musical skills. Thats when his dream of a life turns into a waking nightmare.
Working from a screenplay by author/commentator John Ridley ( Red Tails, Three Kings), McQueen could have gone heavy with the melodrama and mawkishness. Instead, he keeps it simple, letting the emotion well up from the situation, and then not turning away. Thats the case with the whipping scene of Northups friend Patsey (Lupita Nyongo), where he is forced to become his masters brutal hand. Its hard to watch, not simply for the physical violence but for its sheer emotional wallop.
It helps that the British director elicits strong performances from all of his actors, especially his countrymen Ejiofor, who should become a household name after this performance; Michael Fassbender as troubled and viciously cruel plantation owner Edwin Epps; and Benedict Cumberbatch as the kind but conflicted and ineffectual plantation owner Ford.
The one false note comes from, oddly, the man without whose help the film might not have been made. Co-producer Brad Pitt plays Samuel Bass, a Canadian abolitionist Northup meets during his time in the South. Though this character is based on a man in Northups life, it feels forced, as if the studio added him to give the movie a big-name star with whom viewers could identify.
But this is a small complaint in what is otherwise a masterful work of both historical horror and visual beauty.
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