Powerful biopic on cruelly abducted freeman Solomon Northup
Based on an autobiographical narrative from the 19th century, the new film from British director Steve McQueen recounts the agonizing ordeal of a prosperous and well-educated African-American, a freed man named Solomon Northup, who was shanghaied back into slavery for more than a decade in the pre-Civil War U.S.
As such, 12 Years a Slave is a sometimes grueling history lesson that pays graphic attention to the physical cruelties as well as the legal and moral injustices of the slavery system. A certain weakness for punishing realism might have been fatal, were it not for the brilliancies of characterization that bring the whole thing back to life just as a grim despondency threatens to take over.
Ultimately, the prime example of that brilliance comes via Solomon Northup himself (played with fine, nuanced power and restraint by Chiwetel Ejiofor). The movie, which portrays Solomon as refusing to be defined by his own victimhood, finds its most powerful and incisive dramatics in the tragic ironies of the man’s struggle not just to survive but to preserve a sense of dignity and self in the midst of soul-crushing cruelties.
McQueen brings a pungently modern sense of social psychology to bear on the culture of slave-owning by way of an extraordinary range of complex secondary characters—a sympathetic-but-conflicted slave owner (Benedict Cumberbatch); a lubricious slave merchant (Paul Giamatti); a slave “mistress” (Alfre Woodard) who parlays acts of submission into a modicum of status and power; a heroic and ultimately martyred slave girl (Lupita Nyong’o); and a frantic and inept petty tyrant (Paul Dano).
The movie’s slave-owning arch-fiend (Michael Fassbender), a debauched plantation owner and sexual predator who fancies himself as a master of diabolical revels, is the lone misstep into over-the-top caricature.