All of which makes British director Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave an even more staggering revelation. Though it wasn't uncommon for free blacks to be kidnapped into slavery—it's likely the number of kidnapped blacks surpassed the number that escaped via the Underground Railroad—this cinematic rendering of our country's shameful history cuts particularly deep. In part, it's that Northup is the perfect stand-in for the viewer: We see slavery through the eyes of both an outsider and a participant. But in greater part, it's that McQueen has constructed a film that's agonizing but not lurid, compassionate but not melodramatic, patient but still thrilling—and unlike other such movies, it doesn't feel like a moralizing homework assignment.
12 Years a Slave opens with Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) already in slavery. Through a series of efficient flashbacks, it recounts the events that led to his kidnapping and sale into slavery. Two middlemen offered Northup work with a circus in D.C.—a place where, unlike New York, blacks lacked protections. In the film, he wakes up in shackles in a slave pen within sight of the Capitol building. He's then thrown on a boat to Louisiana, where he glimpses the defeated faces and whip-scarred flesh of slaves for sale at a muddy New Orleans port.
Northup's first owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) believes himself benevolent, gifting Northup a fiddle. "I hope it brings us both much joy over the years," he says, and Ejiofor's eyes convey a heartbreaking flash of recognition: This arrangement is to be permanent. Yet this first owner is kind compared to Northup's next master, a "nigger-breaker" named Epps, portrayed by Michael Fassbender with terrifying, animalistic ferocity.
McQueen exposes the full extent of slavery's physical cruelty, from the endless hours of cotton-picking to the capricious acts of violence, as well as the system's psychological toll. Ejiofor, with stoicism and crushing reserve, plays a man forced to keep his head down and feign illiteracy. At one point, he covertly attempts to write a letter by boiling blackberries to make ink, but the fruit fails to thicken. As the juice bleeds across the paper, it's nearly as painful to watch as a scene of a whipping.
Despite its handful of vicious instances of violence, 12 Years has none of the garish extravagance of last year's Django Unchained, in which Quentin Tarantino perverted a historical atrocity into a hip-hop-scored spaghetti Western. 12 Years is a vital corrective to that film—instead of spraying blood over the cotton bolls, McQueen focuses on the wholesale perversion of human relationships caused by slavery. Epps, for example, cannot understand his simultaneous love and hate for a slave named Patsey, played by a shattering Lupita Nyong'o, whom he brutally rapes and beats and yet still favors above his wife.
Alongside such brutality, McQueen stages takes of astounding beauty and surprising tranquility. He's a patient filmmaker, favoring long shots and wide angles over the quick cuts and close-ups that can sap scenes of their impact. At one point, Northup is nearly lynched, and he hangs from a branch, his toes just touching the ground. We hear his feet against the gurgling mud. Cicadas buzz. In the background, female slaves carry buckets of water. Children play tag. No one acts. The scene lasts for minutes.
Yet watching 12 Years a Slave does not feel like an ethical or educational obligation. While its instructive value is undeniable, this is also a rousing portrait, a morally complicated tale and a masterful work of art. It's not perfect—flashbacks to Northup's life as a free man in New York are too idyllic, and the literary language can feel stilted—but it comes damn close.
Critic's Grade: A
SEE IT: 12 Years a Slave is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.