12 Years a Slave is a film based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free middle class black musician who lived in upstate New York in the first half of the nineteenth century. It is the nightmare tale of his abduction and sale into slavery, and his 12-year fight to survive and rejoin his family. The film is filled with ugly brutality and Northup, who is forced by the slave traders to go by another name, is systematically dehumanized and has to hide his true educated self, since that could mean a death sentence for him. A lot of it is hard to watch, but the violence is integral to the story, and it is definitely graphic but never gratuitous.
Northup is played by the amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor. We first meet him in his comfortable life with his wife and children. His downfall is when he is tricked into a meeting with some men who offer him a job, which is really an excuse to kidnap him and take him to Louisiana where he is sold first to a fairly benevolent slaveholder (is that oxymoronic?), Benedict Cumberbatch, but then to a sadistic epitome of the racist institution named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Northup tries to retain his dignity and detachment, but finds it difficult to ignore the master’s sadistic infatuation with a beautiful girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), who he alternately rapes and beats. The saddest image in the whole film is her face as Northup is rescued and she is left to endure more of the horror.
Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) does not go for flashy cinematography or manipulative music. He lets the story speak for itself. And the casting is spot on. It is star-filled, but they all seem just right for their roles, many of them like Brad Pitt having just a bit of screen time. I have no doubt it will be up there for all the awards and it is totally deserving. Everyone should see it.