Solomon Northup published his memoir, “12 Years a Slave,” in 1853. One hundred and 60 years later, British director Steve McQueen and American screenwriter John Ridley have adapted Northup’s meticulous slave narrative into a masterpiece of clear-eyed historical drama.
“12 Years a Slave,” the film, makes it impossible to see the South’s “peculiar institution” in the mist of nostalgic Hollywood myth. It tells an unbridled account of epic injustice in brilliant style.
In 1841, Northup, an educated, free black man born in upstate New York, is duped into traveling south to Washington, D.C. In the nation’s capital, he awakens in chains in a bare, dark room.
Northup’s bewilderment is coupled with the agonizing pain of his first beating. “You’re not a free man,” he’s told. “You’re not from Saragota. You’re from Georgia.”
From the Washington slave pen, he’s transported 100 miles south to Richmond, capital of Virginia, a slave state. From there he’s shipped to New Orleans. “I had reached the threshold of unutterable wrong, and sorrow, and despair,” he writes in his memoir, “shut out from the sweet light of liberty.”
In the demanding role of Northup, British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a man who, in the eyes of slave traders and owners, is a beast. But Ejiofor’s expressive face and body language reveal his character’s vexing emotions and his reaction to life-threatening situations.
Even in the darkness of Northup’s nightmare made real, he clings to the slimmest thread of hope. Ejiofor shows Northup outwardly stripped of his freedom and identity but not his remembrance of who he really is.
“I will keep myself hearty until freedom is opportune!” Northup tells Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a weeping mother whose children have been taken from her.
Northup toils on a series of south Louisiana plantations. First comes the comparatively paternal William Prince Ford. Benedict Cumberbatch, another British actor, plays Ford. Being a devout Christian doesn’t stop Ford from also being a slaveholder who cannot shield Northup from the evil system.
Northup’s relatively benign stay at the Ford plantation (Magnolia Plantation in Schriever) ends with scene of torture, shown with the detachment of a clinical trial. The film’s director knows there’s no need to reach for tragedy. The simple depiction of the wicked acts is enough.
Northup leaves the Ford plantation for the Epps plantation (Felicity Plantation in Vacherie). Intense Irish actor Michael Fassbender goes to the wall as the red-bearded Edwin Epps. By day and night, the lurching Epps flaunts his absolute power. Fassbender’s Epps is a terrifying, world-class villain.
McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt highlight the beauty of the Louisiana woodlands, water and plantation locations. The beauty exists alongside the story’s ugliness. And it’s amazing how normally joyful music and dance are employed so perversely in one antebellum household.
However difficult “12 Years a Slave” may be to witness, the film deserves the overwhelming praise it’s received. And it merits a top spot on industry and critics’ awards lists, too.