In the monumental "12 Years A Slave," the face of actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is itself a monument, etched with agony, anger and sorrow, carved by rivers of sweat, tears and blood. It is a gravestone of hope and a testament to gnawing despair. It’s a cauldron of buried intelligence, roiling compassion and seething rage. It’s a face that doesn’t tell a thousand stories, it tells only one: an unimaginable account of harrowing injustice and unspeakable violence.
That face is the centerpiece of director Steve McQueen’s artfully precise and unwavering approach to a tragic, personal narrative, one that not only chronicles the true plight of Solomon Northup, a free man shanghaied into slavery, but also depicts the macabre and feverish insanity of the antebellum South.
McQueen obliterates the passage of time in the picture. From Northup’s abduction in 1841 to his rescue 12 years later, the days, weeks and years pass with a dreadful monotony. Constant hard labor, frequent lashings, merciless humiliations and terrifying lynchings are punctuated by fleeting glimmers of escape, but all of it occurs under the same stultifying southern sun or the same black night, when the slaves are aroused from their sleep to dance for their master.
McQueen offers momentary relief with quiet traveling shots of mossy trees and vistas of sunsets, but the natural beauty — suggesting freedom and escape — only mocks the terrible brutality Northup and his fellow slaves must endure. The director has an astute eye for the subtle detail, the sparest of objects that carry the weight of a person’s dignity or hope. In a recurring scene, Northup tries to write a letter with the juice squeezed from a berry. In another, a woman is whipped nearly to death for procuring a pebble of soap to wash the stink from her body.
Faithfully based on Northup’s memoir, and written for the screen by John Ridley, the dialogue is tinged with an archaic lilt. Group shots of standing slaves are composed like the tableau vivant from an illustrated history. The costumes worn by the plantation masters and the interiors of their houses seem wilted and tawdry. The slaves move among the whites with a tacit understanding of trust, yet the specter and sound of a cracking whip looms over their every movement.
There is a lurking sense that the kidnapping of free men, women and children was a common occurrence among slave traders, and that a nationwide conspiracy kept this practice quiet, but McQueen never addresses the issue directly. He isn’t interested in the dense particulars of history, but he is furiously committed to capturing the pungent density of experience. Much like his brilliant, uncompromising first feature, "Hunger," a film in which the elements of the body — its scatology, its putrefaction — provided the structure and arc of his depiction of the 1981 IRA hunger strikes, "12 Years A Slave" intends to soak us in the cold sweat of an extended nightmare.
It is Solomon’s bitter nightmare we are sharing, but it is the gruesome, extended endgame of slavery’s diaspora we are witnessing. There are good people besides Solomon caught up in the maelstrom. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o plays the slave girl Patsey, horribly abused and vibrantly alive, she suffers even more than Solomon. Benedict Cumberbatch plays a decent plantation owner forced to sell Solomon to a less desirable master in order to save both their skins. Brad Pitt has a pivotal role as an abolitionist, who makes a late appearance in the movie. But there is also an incomprehensible venality in the likes of Paul Giamatti’s slave trader, Paul Dano’s sadistic line boss and especially Michael Fassbender’s psychopathic overlord. The actor breathes such venom into the role that he makes even the viewer’s skin crawl.
However, it is Ejiofor’s performance that anchors the film. His astonishing portrayal of Solomon Northup is memorable for what is left unspoken. Guided by McQueen’s perceptive direction, Ejiofor’s magnificent face remains the most powerful record of his wrenching ordeal.
This review first appeared in The Restless Critic.