This review was originally published on September 1, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.
The very title of Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” provides that rare sliver of hope by establishing a rigid timeline within which the once-freed Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) would see release after being kidnapped and sold back into bondage in the mid-1800s. Northup’s story was a true, terrible thing, and by virtue of telling it, the burdens of all American slaves are unflinchingly realized by Ejiofor and McQueen alike.
Solomon’s journey from life as a respected Saratoga lawyer and family man to a fixture on several New Orleans plantations is conveyed with the same singular focus that defined McQueen’s earlier films, “Hunger” and “Shame.” Whereas the characters of those films (each played by Michael Fassbender) often inflicted pain upon themselves in pursuit of their passion and principles, Solomon is punished by slave traders and owners epitomized by the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and, of course, Michael Fassbender, mostly vicious men who equate Solomon’s uncommon intelligence for common insolence.
From our lead’s perspective, the American South is a thicket of nightmarish scenarios wherein his rightful freedom is denied time and again. Acts of brutality visited upon Solomon are nearly as unsettling for their casual occurrence as they are for their physical violence, and even rare gestures of mercy are tinged with reminders of this man’s supposed inferiority. (The gift of a violin is accompanied by the reminder that it should bring both parties entertainment “for a great many years to come.”)
“Slave” might be the most grimly accurate depiction of American slavery committed to film, which in turn threatens to render monotonous countless inhumane offenses as the story stretches into its third hour. It’s not that McQueen and writer John Ridley (working from Northup’s own memoir) could help it, assuming they even wanted to. The subject matter doesn’t exactly invite comic relief, while cutting away to Solomon’s surely concerned family up north would have rung false and detracted from such an aptly oppressive experience.
McQueen nonetheless manages to reinvigorate these cruelties on each occasion, whether cutting between the sounds of music and the sights of agony during scenes of mandatory celebration or forced separation, or subtly incorporating his trademark long take during an extended whipping scene as the potential for maximum emotional and physical anguish aligns with a harsh sense of inevitability. For the most part, these high emotions are matched well by Hans Zimmer’s score, although the odd flair of “Inception”-like bombast deflates one particularly tense encounter early on.
All of that impeccable composure and noble intent would be for naught were Ejiofor not the one grounding each indignity as Solomon. It’s not that this ensemble is a feeble one -- I’ve failed to yet mention Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Garret Dillahunt, or astounding newcomer Lupita Nyong’o -- but especially when compared to the showy ferocity offered up by Fassbender or bland sympathy provided by co-producer Brad Pitt as a Canadian abolitionist, Ejiofor’s tightly clenched conviction perfectly embodies hope and righteousness against all odds. He gives the best performance of his career to date, and what’s more, he gives “Slave” its bruised, beating heart with every scene.
SCORE: 8.6 / 10