As I watched the opening scenes of 12 Years a Slave, in which we’re given tastefully composed shots of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup set to lugubrious violin music, I feared that this was going to be an insufferably glossy piece of Oscar bait. So I was astounded to find that it stays true to the letter as well as the spirit of its source. (It’s based on Northup’s own narrative, published in 1853.) Somehow, miraculously, it doesn’t sell out. The events of the narrative are extraordinary: in 1841, Northup, living in freedom with his wife and children in upstate New York, was kidnapped by slave traders and passed off as a Georgia runaway named Platt, whereupon he spent the next twelve years plunged into a kind of living hell, suffering unspeakable physical and psychological trauma at the hands of sadistic plantation owners and abusive overseers. Since Northup survived to write his tale, it’s not giving anything away to say that he eventually escapes the most insidiously cruel of his masters, Epps (Michael Fassbender) by secretly writing to friends in the north and entreating them to come to his rescue.
If this sounds like a Hollywood ending to Northup’s story, it’s worth noting that it’s grounded in the facts of Northup’s life, as are nearly all of the film’s other details, however excessive or implausible they may seem. The film also wisely reminds us that Northup’s salvation was exceptional: as he climbs into the carriage that will take him away from the horrors of Epps’ plantation, he’s haunted by the faces of those for whom no such escape is possible. 12 Years a Slave shows an awareness of the material and psychological realities of the U.S. slave system that we rarely see in films from either inside or outside Hollywood. It acknowledges that the survival of men like Northup depended less on cunning than on sheer chance; it observes that the slave trade was not only fueled by anti-black racism but also flourished as a highly profitable capitalist enterprise; and it argues that the familiar image of field-hands picking cotton fails to convey the overwhelming sexual, psychological, and emotional torment experienced by enslaved people. The film is also canny about demarcating various figures who complicate the lines of black and white, free and not free, such as the black mistress (Alfre Woodard) of a white plantation owner (she proudly flaunts her success at having used her charms to escape a life of servitude) and a poor white laborer who works alongside Northup in Epps’ fields.
While the film’s commitment to laying bare the horrors of the slave system is commendable, though, its unflinching depiction of extreme physical and psychological pain sometimes borders on self-indulgence. Does director Steve McQueen (whose previous films, Hunger and Shame, are often just as traumatizing) fall into the trap of making a spectacle out of suffering black bodies? Or are such scenes necessary if we intend to look at this subject matter in all its ugliness? I don’t know the answer to these questions—they’re difficult ones—but I will say that the most affecting scene in the film is not one of violence or torture. It’s a rather simple sequence in which Northup, standing at the side of a fresh grave, slowly raises his voice, which trembles with anger and power, deep mournfulness and exultant grace, to sing with his brothers and sisters in bondage.