The talented Chiwetel Ejiofor has rarely had so rich an opportunity to shine onscreen as he does playing Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, adapted from Northup’s best-selling chronicle by John Ridley and directed in clear-eyed, unsentimental fashion by Steve McQueen. A more genteel approach would have been a disservice, both to the story and the historical context.
That Solomon was a black man who was born free, and could read and write, giving him a unique — and altogether harrowing — perspective on having his entire identity erased when he is kidnapped into slavery, which was not an uncommon occurrence at the time.
For the next dozen years, what Solomon observes and experiences threaten to break him, both in body and spirit. This is not an easy film to enjoy, but an easy one respect and admire — both for its relentless force and in appreciation of Ejiofor’s commanding, empathetic and eloquent turn. The entire film — and it’s an epic, make no mistake — revolves around him, and the actor is more than up to the task.
Ridley’s screenplay is admittedly episodic, but McQueen maintains a consistent level of energy throughout, so that the episodes flow freely. A few flashbacks to Solomon’s earlier life emphasize how much he’s lost, but soon enough said flashbacks are dispensed with and the focus becomes Solomon’s here and now.
For the most part, the white characters in the film do not come off well. Yet they too are products of their environment, ignorant of their own inhumanity. This hardly excuses their behavior, yet they are recognizably human in their portrayal, particularly Michael Fassbender’s lusty and increasingly deranged Master Epps and Sarah Paulson as his vindictive wife. Benedict Cumberbatch’s Master Ford is more sympathetic but also more cowardly. Paul Giamatti, in a rare nasty turn, plays a slave trader who’s all business, and Paul Dano is suitably loathsome as a despicable foreman. Only Brad Pitt (also one of the film’s producers), perhaps predictably, plays the kind-hearted builder Bass — and he’s Canadian.
Adepero Oduye and Lupita Nyong’o, both talented newcomers, play female slaves whose paths cross with Solomon on his hellish odyssey — each one existing in a hell of her own from which there is likely no escape. Garret Dillahunt, Scoot McNairy, Quvenzhane Wallis (the young Oscar nominee from Beasts of the Southern Wild) and the always welcome Alfre Woodard (in only one scene, alas) round out a very strong cast in what surely ranks as one of the year’s best films.