For as long as one can remember, the only certitude about the black experience of inequality and oppression, from slavery to apartheid, is that cinema cannot handle it. The subject provokes either piety or lunacy. In the past 12 months alone goonish melodrama (Django Unchained) has vied with stodgy sanctimony (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom). 12 Years a Slave is a breakthrough as amazing as advance word has suggested. British artist-filmmaker Steve McQueen brings to the screen Solomon Northup’s 1853-published memoir of his kidnap and captivity – 4,000-plus days under Louisiana plantation owners – as if the subject of slavery had never before been tackled; or not like this, untarred by hokum and untarnished by the triteness of homily.
McQueen drives every scene straight to the core of its emotions. From screenwriter John Ridley (who co-scripted David O. Russell’s antic Iraq war tragicomedy Three Kings), the dandified period dialogue proves paradoxically perfect. It makes that emotional drive a greater victory for vigour, visceralism and the vernacular of the rebel imagination. Yes, people probably spoke like this. But yes, they also – human emotion never changes – felt, endured, suffered, grieved, raged like this.
British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor is magnificent in the main role. (There is a lot of UK input, plus Irish if you add Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps, the worst of the slave masters, a virtuoso turn in screwloose sententious sadism.) Ejiofor lights each step of Northup’s grim journey with the lantern of truth, from the New England musician and family man’s shanghaiing in Washington, DC, to the Deep South survival games: whipping, near-lynching, the grisliest punishment of coerced flagellation of others. Late on there is a brilliant lingering close-up – trance-like, moist-eyed, glittering with dread and amazement (a man glimpsed at bay against the dogs of destiny) – placed at a point between first hope and first doubt of final rescue. It’s an almost abstract moment, typical of McQueen’s method of using mood as hyphenation between story stages. The whole film breathes with reality, even while the bayou landscapes are infernalised, surrealised, by a terrible beauty of vision. (The cinematographer, as on McQueen’s Hunger and Shame, is Sean Bobbitt.)
The movie’s only clumsiness is mercifully brief: Brad Pitt as Northup’s saviour-rescuer, a carpenter whose Christly auburn locks seem at odds with his grizzled grey beard and whose dialogue hews commonplaces for the hard of hearing. (“Niggers are human beings.”) Elsewhere in 12 Years a Slave, not even some oh-it’s-him-again star casting in character cameos (Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano) can light-pollute the film’s tragic darkness or vitiate the power and credibility of its portrait of a period.