At the start of 12 Years a Slave, a nonfiction account of his experiences as a slave published in 1853, Solomon Northup expressed pleasure at the burgeoning number of books, newspaper articles and other writings that had started to sprout alongside his own memoir.
“Since my return to liberty, I have not failed to perceive the increasing interest throughout the Northern States, in regard to the subject of Slavery,” Northup wrote. “Works of fiction, professing to portray its features in their more pleasing as well as more repugnant aspects, have been circulated to an extent unprecedented, and, as I understand, have created a fruitful topic of comment and discussion.”
But 160 years later, movies remain reluctant to confront the subject. Aside from the seminal 1977 TV miniseries Roots, slavery has been relegated to background and subplots in the vast majority of filmed entertainments set during the early years of American history. Amistad took the true story of a savage mutiny aboard a ship transporting African slaves to America and turned it into a courtroom drama in which famous white actors argued about the definition of freedom. In most Civil War-era movies, black actors are either supporting players, doomed soldiers or victims waiting to be rescued. Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which spared no detail in its depiction of the brutality of slavery, kept its main protagonist on the sidelines for almost half the movie.
And even when the great Gordon Parks ( Shaft) adapted Northup’s book for an episode of PBS’ American Playhouse in 1984, the memoir was condensed into a half hour special suitable for viewing in elementary school classrooms.
One of the most bracing things about 12 Years a Slave, which opens Friday, is the head-on approach director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley take to the material. There is no hand-holding, no comforting, no soothing musical score to heighten the sorrow and wring empathetic tears. The movie’s combination of clinical brusqueness and unexpected moments of dark, poetic beauty is unlike anything you’ve seen before. Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man in Saratoga, N.Y., in 1841 with a wife and two children. He made a comfortable living as a musician. And then, over the course of a single night of too much wine, he wakes up in a dark, dank room, shackled and terrified and alone. “You ain’t a free man,” one of his captors tells him. “You’re a Georgia runaway.”
For the next 12 torturous years, Solomon will be stripped of his identity (Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who renames him Platt), his dignity and, of course, his freedom. The film recounts Solomon’s experiences as he’s sold off like prized livestock to various plantation owners. None is more vicious or cruel than Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cotton farmer with a wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), whose hateful stare reveals her sadism and disdain.
But one of the great things about 12 Years a Slave is that the movie refuses to paint any of its characters in broad strokes: Rendering Epps and Mary as simply evil would undercut the film’s tremendous power. McQueen doesn’t want to simply make us squirm and suffer, because that’s easy to shrug off and leave behind at the theater. Instead, he wants to make us see and feel and try to understand.