12 Years a Slave

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12 Years a Slave

The year is 1841, and Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man living with his family in upstate New York. Then he’s offered two weeks touring work as a fiddle player; only at the end of the tour the (white) men he’s with get him drunk and he wakes up in chains in a Washington D.C. slave trader’s basement. He’s shipped south to New Orleans where he’s sold by Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford seems decent – for a slave-owner – and Northup (now re-named Platt) has some freedom in how he goes about his tree-felling work. Too much freedom for John Tibeats (Paul Dano), whose dislike of Northup leads to a near-lynching. To keep the peace, Ford sells Northup to fellow plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender), who beats his slaves when they fail to meet their cotton-picking targets, lusts after young female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) – angering his sour wife (Sarah Paulson) – and runs his plantation like hell on earth. Northup falls into despair.
Much of this story plays out across Ejiofor’s face as he witnesses horrors – repeated casual murder, mothers and children separated forever, endless grief and anguish – he can’t escape, trapped in a world where he’s treated worse than a farm animal. Many of the film’s most affecting moments are extended shots of a man casting aside all hope; a scene where Northup gives into his plight and joins in singing a spiritual is shattering. Other scenes display the pressure on him to become part of the system that keeps him in chains; at one point Patsey is whipped, her back torn apart in matter-of-fact brutality that pounds home the way slavery crushes a person’s body and soul.
Director Steve McQueen refuses to either sensationalise or gloss over the details of Northup’s tale. He doesn’t need to. This film will haunt you.
Written by Anthony Morris