Healing is a process more viable for the physical body than for the always-restless memory. Scars and wounds vanish into the past replaced by new skin yet always leaving a mark, as minimal as that trace may be it becomes permanent record of the pain endured. The size of said tangible reminder is correlated to that of the injury itself, some being naturally greater than others. And that is the only way to rationally describe the faded hurt of a nation ravaged by injustice and by the torturing notion that the past is indelibly present. How can the people of a certain country accept a defining time in their collective timeline, facts that are too atrocious to be constantly thought of but for the same reason impossible to erase. It is perhaps an amoral act to try to forget, because that is too easy a way to find peace where there shouldn’t be any until all the wrongs have been judged with the only redeeming force humanity can attain: TRUTH. Such light is the guiding principle in every image, every sound, every line delivered in the devastatingly moving masterpiece that is Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave.
Guarded by an artificial veil of acceptance in his hometown of Saratoga Springs, New York during the late 19th century, Solomon Northup lived as a free black man with his family enjoying a life of seemingly equal prosperity as his fellow white men. He was educated, a violin virtuoso, respected and untainted by the racial hatred that plagued the southern states. Ironically, that same trusting state in which he naïvely lived and his undeniable musical talent led him to be lured into a trip that would keep him enslaved, away from his wife and kids, for an infernal twelve years across several different plantations. Those who he believed to be his friends sold him into slavery, a condition that he had to accept to survive, and which rid him of any trace of individuality, even his name.
Now existing by the name Platt, Solomon discovers the real condition in which those that look like him live. Transformed into a disposable commodity and considered someone else’s property the harrowing journey that aims to break his spirit into submission begins. There are countless poignant episodes crafted by McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley to delve into a distinct perception of slavery, its consequences, and the uniform abominable ignorance that allowed for it become the corrosive evil that it was. No unquestionable villain is ever found; even those who commit the most heinous acts of violence and degradation are inspected with unparallel brutal honesty without a trace of purposeful intention to persuade the viewer into an easy conclusion.
Theophilus Freeman’s (Paul Giamatti) explicit display of naked African-American men and women for sale is condemned with equally unbiased exposition as the indifference and faithful acceptance of the status quo by semi-humane Baptist preacher and a slave owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Both were willing participants in a widely accepted dehumanizing process that allowed them to continue on with their lives without disabling remorse. That indeed is the most unsettling truth about the past, the way people at every level of the chain rationalized and condone one another under the fake cloud of superiority by means of a divine righteousness: a.k.a. the color of their skin.
Although forced to endure such unmerciful treatment Solomon stands as a pillar of hope, a dignified soul that refuses to perish at the face of the terrifying circumstances. Beaten but never broken he retains a fire to survive, one that longs for the day he will return home. Soon enough his repressed rage leads him to definitely beat despicable overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano), an act that leaves him hanging from a lynching noose. His below black men, unable to help him as they are disabled by fear, go about their day while he fights off his imminent death in what becomes one the most haunting images of the entire film.
Perpetually reminded of his inferior value to the eyes of his owners, Solomon is once again exchanged as an act of kindest to save his life. Under the self-indulgent commands of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) he is exposed to unprecedented cruelty enforced with the unholy excuse of being Gods mandates. Unflinchingly, for the all the agonizing pain Epps slaves are put through, McQueen is not fast to pass judgment but rather eager to explore the reasoning, if any, for such anguish to be permitted. Admitting without reservations that the entire length of Solomon’s cinematic ordeal is a heart-wrenching experience testifies to the power of the medium and the participants’ selfless devotion to the story.
Leading an outstanding cast is Chiwetel Ejiofor, whose performance couldn’t receive enough praise to truly verbalize its impact. There is nota single false move in his visceral portrayal of a man who lost it all and found the miraculous opus strength to not fall into despair. It’s mesmerizing to witness the total willingness of an actor to let himself experience the horror, the debilitating probability of never being free again, and even in an act of pure emotional intensity sing along the others afflicted by the same injustice, simply flawless.
Also noteworthy among the impeccable ensemble cast is Fassbender’s take on Epps. McQueen’s long time muse plays the sexually deviant estate owner that justifies his inhumane actions as a duty bestowed on him by divine grace. Vicious, still apparently nonchalant he drinks himself away to obliterate the thoughts of what he has done and the sadistic demands of jealous wife Mary, played with matching savagery by Sarah Paulson. Her preferred target is Patsey, a young slave who is unwillingly Mr.Epps’ object of desire. Played by Lupita Nyong’o with fervent passion and hopeless desperation delivering one of the most riveting performances of the year that deserves every accolade unquestionably.
Having enumerated the singular standouts in the production, there is above all one name that shines as heroic among the rest. Director Steve McQueen has covered himself in a heavy coat of bravery. He collected the bravery to not hesitate, to show the violence never in a gratuitous manner but with the intention to expose the viewer to an experience that serves no one but the aforementioned TRUTH. No sugar-coating or artificial euphemisms are in place here, not in language or in imagery. Sean Bobbitt’s entrancing beautiful cinematography collides with the crude reality of not only racial relations but also horrifying dehumanizing behavior, all bathed in Hans Zimmer’s atmospheric score to create a vision like no other film about slavery has ever achieved.
Final Verdict: Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is the most vivid retelling of a time that America believes forgotten but that lingers in the subconscious like the most stubborn scar. To not watch this film is at once depriving oneself from a masterful work of art, but it is also an irresponsible act against the memory of those stripped of their humanity, many of whom died waiting to know freedom. Simply a must see that will test anyone’s strength to hold back the tears.