I don’t want to know anyone who doesn’t walk out of “12 Years a Slave” a crushed soul rebuilt from the ground up by the final and finally at-last hopeful moments of this true horror tale. And it is horrifying, make no mistake, this harrowing, must-see depiction of slavery in America.
Yet Brit-born filmmaker Steve McQueen (“Shame”) is deft enough to show time and time again beautiful –- stunningly so — landscapes amid terrifyingly inhumane acts that were the start of this great (and terrible) nation.
These shots are clear: As they degrade the lives of those they see as less than themselves, the allegedly greatest of our kind –- rich, educated, and privileged beyond measure -– bring ruin to their own lives with the heinous need to control and take all treasure. This is the cruelest lesson of “Do unto others…”
And if you like southern American history clean and happy, stay out. This is the anti-“Gone with the Wind.” This is truth. Nor is it slick entertainment that falls on slavery as plot device as with “Django Unchained.”
The story: Solomon Northup was a born free African-American in 1840s New York, a musician and engineer, until he was kidnapped and sold into bondage below the Northern line into death, rape, and forced labor that should shock anyone with a hair of a soul or morality.
To survive, Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor of “Children of Men”) must deny his own greatness and abilities, essentially his outright normalcy as a good family man, lest he be murdered or worse — and yes there are worse fates — by his white masters who will not see anyone of color as their equal.
Solomon does this for 12 grueling years, his longest stretch as “property” of a sadistic drunkard (Michael Fassbender) who abuses all around him, including his own wife (Sarah Paulson) who can equal her husband’s cruelty.
This is an age when a black man could be killed for learning to read or write, an act I cannot even muster in my head as a reality. But McQueen shows us many disturbing realities – including a brutal whipping that Solomon is forced to take part in – as every day life in a past American not mentioned on July 4.
To deny this reality, to insist on the “Gone With the Wind” lie, is to abandon all reason. Sadly, crazily, there are thousands of people here now who do this day in, day out.
In one bravo moment toward the end, McQueen dishes out a scene that pulls no punches: Ejiofor as Northup looks out into the sky and then directly at the audience, daring us to not just continue along with him in his harrowing story, but to never forget his suffering and that of the untold numbers of his fellow slave in an American that only called itself free.
It’s a daring fourth-wall breaking moment that is put there purposely to make you squirm in your seat. And I squirmed and buckled.
(Note: As with the civil rights drama “Butler,” a host of big names pop by for cameos, including Brad Pitt – a producer of the film. But these roles are mostly commoners, not presidents or well-known personalities, and these appearances do not stick in the crawl as, say, John Cusack does as Nixon.)
“12 Years” may not be the most entertaining movie experience of the year, that crown likely belongs to “Gravity,” but it was never meant to be such. It was made to crack open our national conscious on a subject far too often brushed aside.
It succeeds, marvelously and without mercy.
– Steven Mackay, Lyric volunteer