There are horrors aplenty in Steve McQueen’s blistering, cold-eyed epic of slavery. But amidst the cringe-inducing scenes of torture — it seems wrong to call those bloody assaults just “beatings” or “whippings” — McQueen pinpoints acts of cruelty so casual they almost hurt more. The trader slapping the limbs of his newest slaves as though they were prize livestock, noting of one boy, “He will grow into a fine beast.” The plantation owner’s wife who tells her husband’s newest purchase, a woman just separated from her children, not to worry, “They will soon be forgotten.” Another wife, jealous of her husband’s attraction to a slave woman, raking her fingernails across the woman’s face with no more thought than she’d give to swatting an animal. In a world where people can be treated as property, humanity disappears almost as quickly from the owners as from the owned. The difference is, the owned are trying to hang on to theirs.
Fighting tooth and nail for his soul is Solomun Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), whose 1853 autobiography was elegantly adapted for McQueen’s film by John Ridley. A free, married tradesman living in upstate New York, Northup was hired in 1841 by a pair of white men to play fiddle in their traveling circus. Once in Washington, D.C., they drug Northup and sell him to a slave trader; his cell is within view of the Capitol building. Northup receives a new name and a painful education in the futility of resistance, and also the importance of hiding his ability to read and write, before being sold to a Louisiana plantation owner.
The owners and overseers who wield the power of life and death over Northup during the next twelve years serve as an ugly gallery of specimens of Southern slave society. Overseers like Tibeats (Paul Dano) tend toward the stupidly malignant, resenting any hint that a slave might have a better idea. Owners such as Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, almost too much a movie-villain in his fine-tooled, showy slitheriness), who owned Northup for a majority of his time, are like petty lords out of a medieval horror story, all drunken sadism and power games. Epps’s fingernail-raking wife, Mistress Epps (an ice-cold Sarah Paulson), is an almost more vicious creature, ready to torture and murder at will just to keep Edwin’s affections.
Although Ridley’s script follows Northup’s book in its dedication to truthful detail even at the expense of making some slaveowners appear less vile than others, its sympathetic portrayal of Northup’s first owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is still heavily backgrounded with irony. This nominally decent man, who saves Northup from being killed at one point, is still so morally compromised he can’t comprehend the sickness of his society.
Even amid these vivid characters and evocative critiques of plantation culture, McQueen’s film keeps locked in on Northup. From the moment he’s kidnapped, Ejiofor’s face never loses the pain of separation. Every moment after that is a calculation on his part: fight or flight. The former puts him at risk of more skin-shredding and bone-cracking torture but helps preserve his humanity, while the latter is almost certainly doomed; Northup’s one attempt to run away ends when he comes across a group lynching two black men. Complete surrender doesn’t seem to be an option. A short but captivating appearance by Alfre Woodard as a former slave married to an owner shows Northup the compromises required for long-term survival, as does the moment when he is left choking on a noose while his fellow slaves work calmly in the background, pretending not to notice.
With Northup recalibrating his plan for day-to-day survival, the film misses something by hearing so little of his voice. The dialogue we do hear from him is, like most of the other characters, fully dressed in arch 19th century elocutions. Those few moments when Ejiofor lets his full character unfurl, it’s a bracing reminder of all that he is suppressing for survival. For his part, McQueen delivers a more full-hearted story here that would be expected from some a strictly mechanistic director. But McQueen’s reticence serves the story well. When it builds towards the thunderously emotional and theoretically happy ending that is of course nothing of the sort, 12 Years a Slave resists overselling the moment. One freed slave doesn’t help the ones left behind. And although the Civil War was less than a decade away, there’s no guarantee that any kind of justice will ever be served. The only reckoning to come for these slavers is their having to live in the filth of their own sin.