To hell and back

Director Steve McQueen’s biopic about a 19th-century slave’s quest for freedom is a surefire Oscar contender for Best Picture.

Director Steve McQueen’s biopic about a 19th-century slave’s quest for freedom is a surefire Oscar contender for Best Picture.

Rated 5.0

There’s a lot of Oscar buzz around director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, and if it snags the big prize next March, I won’t be surprised. Not because it’s the year’s best picture—although it’s awfully near the top—but for reasons that have more to do with the movie colony than with McQueen’s searing, indelible movie.

First, as Pauline Kael once noted, Hollywood is notoriously cowardly, and is always proudest of those movies that celebrate courage. And besides, 12 Years a Slave gives Academy Award voters the chance to scratch an itch that’s been bugging them since the 1960s: It’s an opportunity to “atone” for the 1940 Best Picture winner, Gone With the Wind.

Not that 12 Years is likely to eclipse GWTW’s popularity anytime soon; it’s awfully strong and uncomfortable stuff. McQueen and writer John Ridley tell the all-too-credible story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man of color in Saratoga Springs, New York, who, in 1841, was enticed to Washington, D.C., on the promise of a job as a musician, then drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery.

That much of Northrup’s story is unfortunately unremarkable; such things were not uncommon in pre-Civil War America. What’s remarkable is that Northrup was eventually redeemed from bondage and wrote a book about it, published in 1853. Ridley, with some minor dramatic license, has adapted Northrup’s memoir into a first-rate script.

The British-born McQueen (not to be confused with the late American superstar of the same name) is just the kind of director to bring this story to the screen. McQueen’s style is a paradoxical blend of compassion and pitilessness. It’s unflinching in its directness (McQueen often employs long takes of five minutes or more, forcing us to confront the action without the subliminal comfort of cutting away to different angles), yet compassionate in its regard for the humanity of even the most inhuman characters.

Another paradox is that this compassion shows even in the treatment of the picture’s least sympathetic characters: the strictly business, ironically named slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti), the dog-stupid slave owner Tibeats (Paul Dano), the Bible-thumping Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his wife (Sarah Paulson). These people are presented as they must have seemed at the time, even to themselves; there’s no sense of a 21st-century actor sending out subtle I’m-not-really-like-this signals (I’m thinking of Ed Asner in Roots). Likewise, the handful of decent characters, such as slave owners Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Judge Turner (Bryan Batt), shine by their own lights and not as reflected in the hindsight of 170 years later. (It helps immeasurably that Ridley and McQueen preserve, and the actors can handle, the archaic vocabulary and rhythms of 19th-century speech.)

Three performances in 12 Years a Slave stood out for me. The shortest is an incisive cameo by Alfre Woodard as a black woman who has risen to be mistress of her own plantation, reaching an uneasy, rueful peace. The most unexpected comes from Lupita Nyong’o, who makes a breakthrough screen debut as the slave woman Patsey, lust-object of the hypocritical Epps and victim of his venomous wife.

Most of all, there’s Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup himself. Ejiofor has been doing solid work since at least Steven Spielberg’s Amistad in 1997, usually in supporting roles. Here, he carries the whole movie and gives it its core of unquenchable humanity. It’s in his eyes as stares in disbelieving horror at where cruel fate has brought him, and as he joins in singing a hymn at the funeral of a fellow slave. What makes the picture bearable for us is knowing what Northrup could not: That it will, in time, be over, and he’ll return to his wife and family. What made it bearable for him, we sense, was luck, the occasional decency, and his own wits, which told him when he could let his intelligence show and when he must conceal it. This, we sense, is what Solomon Northrup must have been like.

Northrup endured slavery for a dozen years. McQueen, Ridley and Ejiofor give it to us for a little more than two hours, and that’s more than enough.