The opening scenes of “12 Years a Slave,” Steve McQueen’s searing adaptation of the true-life account of a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the pre-Civil War South, tell you all you need to know about the cinematic experience you’re about to have. A lush, unnerving tableau of a group of black men being taught to cut sugar cane reminds viewers of McQueen’s gift for evoking atmosphere and stark, highly charged emotion, whereas a scene that follows — in which the protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), attempts to write a letter home with the juice of a few berries — brings viewers into intimate contact with a place and time too often rendered as distant and abstract.
Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, “12 Years a Slave” in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine — if not cauterize — America’s primal wound. But it’s also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties. “12 Years a Slave” isn’t just a cathartic experience that happens to be an astonishing formal achievement: It works its emotional power precisely because it’s so elegantly constructed, from the inside out.
From those unsettling initial scenes, “12 Years a Slave” flashes back to 1841, when Northup, a relatively prosperous musician, is living with his wife and children in Saratoga, N.Y. While his family is out of town, Northup is introduced to two self-described talent scouts, who assure him he can get good work as a fiddler with a traveling circus. After a trip to Washington and a night of wine and dining, Northup wakes up in a holding cell, shackled by chains and enshrouded in heavy, unremitting silence.
What follows is a journey of unimaginable suffering and horror, a sort of anti-picaresque during which Northup is beaten for insisting that he’s a free man, then bought and sold and bought again, finally landing at a plantation owned by the merciless Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Much of “12 Years a Slave” centers on Northup’s relationship with Epps, who is smart enough to know he should be threatened by his enslaved servant’s superior intellect and sense of culture — and who processes those conflicting feelings the same way he accommodates his sexual attraction to a field worker named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o): with escalating and increasingly psychotic violence. (Epps’s methods of annihilation extend to the subtle as well, such as when he casually leans on his servants, as if they’re pieces of furniture or wooden fence posts.)
But “12 Years a Slave,” which McQueen directed from a courtly, admirably economical script by John Ridley, isn’t content simply to be an index of human cruelty. Rather, the film offers a panorama, not just of the African American experience in the antebellum South — from the inconsolable wailing of a woman separated from her children to a former slave contentedly ensconced as the wife of her former owner — but of the varieties of racist pathology. White audience members may find it impossible to identify with the sadistically extreme abuse perpetrated by Epps and his own desperate and cruel wife, played in a chillingly good performance by Sarah Paulson. But what of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), one of Northup’s more benevolent owners, and his passive paternalism?
The challenge in presenting oppression within the traditional grammar of feature films is that the director winds up aestheticizing violence, or keeping it at a safe, deniable distance. McQueen solves this problem by refusing to blink, or at least knowing precisely when to allow his audience to do so.
As he did in the films “Hunger” and “Shame” (also starring Fassbender), McQueen doesn’t go in for a lot of flash edits or self-conscious visual flourishes to put viewers at ease; rather, he invites the audience to sit with him as he gazes, amazed, at man’s inhumanity to man, an unnerving encounter that in this case is heightened by a percussive, adamantly non-period musical score by Hans Zimmer. Whether the filmmaker is holding his camera on Northup as he struggles on his tiptoes, his neck caught in a lynching noose, while the life of the plantation deliberately goes on behind him, or an excruciatingly protracted whipping scene, the net effect is less an indictment of slavery than a far more nuanced portrait of the violence, intimacy, obsession and constant psychological contortions that defined its most toxic enmeshments.
At it most profound, though, “12 Years a Slave” is a captivating study in humanity at its most troubled and implacable, as Ejiofor masterfully portrays Northup’s fight to retain his dignity and identity within an ever-widening nightmare. As such, McQueen’s film deserves pride of place alongside “Gravity,” “Captain Phillips” and the upcoming “All Is Lost” as a breathtaking, ambitious essay on physical and existential isolation. Arguably, the stakes here are higher, not just for Northup, but for the viewers who find themselves caught up in his wrenching journey. It’s improbable that anyone will feel lighter after watching “12 Years a Slave,” but they’re likely to find that their moral imaginations have been newly liberated.
★ ★ ★ ★
R. At area theaters. Contains violence, cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. 134 minutes.