'12 Years a Slave': Telluride Review

Fox Searchlight
A strong, involving, at times overstated telling of an extraordinary life story.

Steve McQueen's slave drama stars Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch.

The recent popular revenge fantasy Django Unchained notwithstanding, there have been so few good and strong films about slavery in America that, for this reason alone, 12 Years A Slave stands quite tall. With director Steve McQueen dedicating himself to detailing the “peculiar institution” with as many dreadful particulars as he can, Chiwetel Ejiofor leads a fine cast with a superior performance as the real-life Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into Southern slavery until being miraculously rescued. Perhaps the nature of the story is such that the film can’t help but be obvious and quite melodramatic at times, but it gets better as it goes along and builds to a moving finish. Despite the upsetting and vivid brutality, Fox Searchlight has a winner here that will generate copious media coverage, rivet the attention of the black public, stir much talk in political and educational circles and appeal to film audiences who crave something serious and different.

Northup published a memoir of his 12-year nightmare in 1853, the year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin came out, and it was so successful that he went on to participate in two stage adaptations. The book dropped from sight in the 20th century, but the movie tie-in will certainly reestablish its virtually unique status as a work by an educated free man who managed to return from slavery.

British director McQueen, whose striking first two features, Hunger and Shame, remained restricted to the art film world, paints on a much bigger canvas and with a much broader brush here, befitting a subject that defined the structure of American society before the Civil War. The nature of the outrage, villainy and human suffering on display is entirely genuine if also familiar, but it is never far removed from the direct experiences of Northup, who, near the beginning of his ordeal, decides, “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”

For him, this means getting back to Saratoga, N.Y., where he has lived with his wife and children in well-to-do fashion until Northup, who plays the violin, is induced by two self-described entertainers to join them in Washington, D.C., to makes some quick money. They get him drunk and he wakes up in chains and, soon enough, is on a boat to Louisiana, where he is renamed Platt Hamilton by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) and sold to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch).

That any of this could happen seems shocking, of course, but it was not uncommon in the years after the federal government banned the import of any further slaves. One of the most wrenching occurrences in any slave-era narrative is the forced separation of parents from children and this happens in Platt’s group to mother Eliza (Adepero Oduye), who almost never stops crying about it thereafter.

A cultivated religious man, Ford is impressed by Platt’s intelligence and fiddle playing, which only arouses the ire of Platt’s immediate boss Tibeats (Paul Dano), who provokes Platt to the point that the black man savagely beats him. To save Platt from revenge, Ford sells him to cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, the star of McQueen’s first two films), who, like Uncle Tom’s Simon Legree, likes to believe he can break slaves of any defiant or hopeful thoughts.

Up to this point, Northup/Platt is pretty strictly seen as a simmering victim, while the whites, with the exception of Ford, are mercenary businessmen at best and outright villains at worst, figures little different than the caricatures that have come down through the years in books and films. There are grace notes, to be sure, such as startling scene in which, deep in the bayou, a group of slaves encounter some Indians, or when the relatively enlightened Ford reads from the Bible to family members and slaves together.

But it is only at about the one-hour mark that matters deepen and therefore become more interesting. Fassbender’s Epps (a real person who, later in life, read Northup’s book and declared that what he wrote was basically the truth) initially seems like the most evil creature in the South, a drunk prone administering severe whippings and having his way sexually with slave women, notably the slender Patsey (a very fine Lupita Nyong’o), whom Platt also befriends.

However, Fassbender reaches down to make him a more complex creation, a sometimes shrewd observer of character in a tortured marriage with a wife (Sarah Paulson, superb) who belittles him as a eunuch in front of the slaves and takes out her hatred on Patsey. The latter, in turn, begins to ask the impossible of Platt, of whom Epps becomes suspicious of trying to send messages to the outside world, which, in fact, he is.

In the end, it’s only the chance arrival of an itinerant Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who with Platt will put up a new building on Epps’s plantation, that provides the slave with the hope of an escape. An ardent abolitionist given to universal truths rather than local notions, Bass is not afraid to argue with Epps or the rouse his ire by saying things like, “There is a fearful ill resting upon this nation.” Although he’s been betrayed by many a white man before, Platt takes a chance by entrusting his fate to this seemingly sincere fellow.

Quite a few scenes, of Platt’s near-lynching and some others’ actual hangings, of terrific whippings and other punishments, are pretty rough. The everyday drudgery and misery of plantation life and the arbitrariness with which slaves are moved around are readily apparent and, the sentiments of the likes of Bass to the side, there is not a whiff of any change to come apparent to anyone. This particular story may have, after a fashion, a happy and inspiring ending, but very few other slave lives did.

Ejiofor is terrific in a demanding character who’s put through the wringer physically, mentally and emotionally. One feels his determination to get back to his family virtually at all times even though he doesn’t talk about it, and toward the end there is an unusual extended close-up of him in which he looks out toward the unknown future as his eyes express a quicksilver array of emotions, from wonder to fear to hope.

Louisiana location work provides the perfect heated setting for a story expertly physicalized by production designer Adam Stockhausen, costume designer Patricia Norris and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt. Hans Zimmer’s score combines with occasional religious music sung by the slaves to provide effective backgrounding, but students of the composer’s work will quickly realize that the main chord progression here is almost precisely the same as the central one he used on what may be his greatest soundtrack, that for Inception.

Venue: Telluride Film Festival

Opens:  October 18 (Fox Searchlight)

Production: River Road, Plan B, New Regency

Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, Paul Giamatti, Scoot McNairy, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt, Michael Kenneth Williams, Alfre Woodard, Chris Chalk, Taran Killam, Bill Camp

Director: Steve McQueen

Screenwriter: John Ridley, based on the memoir by Solomon Northup and David Wilson

Producers: Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Bill Pohlad, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Anthony Katagas

Executive producers: Tessa Ross, John Ridley

Director of photography: Sean Bobbitt

Production designer: Adam Stockhausen

Costume designer: Patricia Norris

Editor: Joe Walker

Music: Hans Zimmer

R rating, 134 minutes