I've read somewhere that Southern plantation owners feared that slaves, if encouraged by all the abolitionist talk, might kill all the white people in their sleep. Interviews conducted with former slaves in the late nineteenth century confirmed that this had been a possibility. Many would have risen up and killed their masters if they thought they could have succeeded. Why was there such extreme, if usually contained, feelings of violence toward the slave owners?
12 Years a Slave answers that question. There have been movies and TV series on slavery before, but 12 Years — based on a true story — makes the experience real like nothing before it. Compared to this film, Tarantino's Django Unchained was cartoonish violence with cartoon characters (even though it did have virtuoso acting jobs by DiCaprio and Samuel L. Jackson).
It is not easy to watch. Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ springs to mind, but 12 Years is a much better film. Rather than dwell on torture for two hours, it shows physical horrors only intermittently. More often, the real horror is watching a sympathetic character have to face dilemma after dilemma: whether to act the part of a slave or be sagavely whipped, whether to lie or tell the truth, and whether to try to help another slave at the price of potentially being beaten to death. On such dilemmas is real drama built.
Because the protagonist is a man who had been free all his life, then kidnapped and falsely presented as an escaped slave, his plight has a special resonance. You and I and everyone else are born free. Now close your eyes and imagine losing that freedom.
The lead actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor, is a magnificent casting choice. He plays Solomon Northup as black in color, white in education, rainbow in spirit. The beauty of his performance is that he's not so much Black Everyman as he is just Everyman.
A few flashbacks tell us all we need to know. Born as a citizen, not a slave, he conducts himself with the natural dignity of a man who has never been owned. He has no chip on his shoulder because he has no reason to have a chip. He dresses like a gentleman and plays the part too. He's loved by all for his talent with a violin. Yet there's nothing pretentious about him, and his white neighbors — who are good people — respect him and appreciate him even though the year is 1841.
And that's why 12 Years a Slave gets under a person's skin — any person's skin. For such a free man to suffer the indignities of slavery is especially troubling. If he can be broken, made to feel a slave, so could anyone. Throughout the film, the pain of being degraded reads on Ejifor's face like a monument to emotions, carved in stone. It's a great performance.
Maybe there's no such thing as a good slaveowner. The institution was wrong even when the owner was relatively kind. But being owned by a man who was cruel, hateful, or otherwise disturbed was an indignity almost beyond imagining for anyone today.
Benedict Cumberbatch (a cast member of both Star Trek and The Hobbit) is terrific as Solomon's first master, because it's not clear at first whether this owner is a good man or bad. Like most people, he's a complex jumble of both. Although he's not willing to free Solomon (he has too much money tied up in the purchase), he does ultimately save the man's life. Unfortunately, that requires selling Solomon to the really bad slave owner, played by Michael Fassbender.
Fassbender's performance is remarkable — maybe the best this talented actor has ever given. As sadistic as he is, there is no mustache-twisting here, no evil laugh, no sense that sees himself as the villain, no matter how villainous his actions are. Mastering an American accent much better than he did in The Counselor, his attitudes are molded by the society around him. He's a bastard to his slaves and shamelessly uses a female slave (Lupita Nyongo) for his pleasure.
And yet he does all this because it's expected of him, because this is what a Southern man of property in this age does. Most of the time, he doesn't even enjoy it. But he's not going to give up his domination over his slaves because he feels that would be giving up his manhood. You can see what's at stake in Fassbender's face, in his determined jaw: He could choose to be kinder to his slaves but if he did, he'd feel like someone cut his balls off.
The result is not to make him sympathetic, which he never is, but to make him more real — and thus more frightening — than any white man you've ever seen in a film about slavery.
No review of 12 Years a Slave would be complete without mentioning its use of setting. Although most the story is set in rural Georgia, the locations are so swampy and humid-looking they seem more like Florida. And yet this works: Director Steve McQueen (no relation to the late actor) has created a vast visual contrast between the cool, shady North and the almost infernally hot South. You can practically feel the sweat coming off the slaves as they pick cotton.
The result is not the pleasant green parks of Southern California used to shoot Gone with the Wind, but a kind of Southern jungle, in the middle of which is a white plantation house surrounded by willows and wisteria and the background noise of insects. It's a place more Darwinian than civilized.
12 Years a Slave is not a pleasant experience to sit through, and even its ending is less exhilarating than it is a relief. But this film is easily one of the best films released in 2013… so that I retroactively give it credit for being good enough to have made my Top Ten list. There are great supporting performances by Paul Gaimatti, Paul Dano, Brad Pitt, and Alfre Woodward. Something about this film transcends the slavery issue. There's a special place in Hell for people who rob others of their dignity, whether it's done through chains, lynching, or hate crimes.