A musician is drugged, kidnapped and sold to a ring of human traffickers. Director Steve McQueen uses his considerable skills to chain us to that man. Then he drops him and us into a pitiless chamber of horrors that would be unimaginable if it didn't acutely define the American slave trade.
You heard me. 12 Years a Slave starts its true story in 1841 when Solomon Northup (British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violin player living free in New York with his wife and children, gets tricked into a job in Washington, D.C., and then winds up as human chattel in the Deep South. Solomon's memoir was published in 1853, eight years before the Civil War. Ancient history? Only if you believe that freedom has lost its fragility in the modern world. McQueen, a conceptual artist born in London to West Indian parents, sure as hell doesn't. His cinematic gut punch looms like a colossus over the Mandingo-Mammy-fixated drivel that passes as muckraking in Hollywood. Working with African-American screenwriter John Ridley, McQueen makes it impossible to regard slavery from the safe remove of TV screens (Roots), Hollywood sugarcoating (Gone With the Wind) and Tarantino satire (Django Unchained). This prickly renegade restores your faith in the harsh power of movies. You don't just watch 12 Years a Slave. You bleed with it, share its immediacy and feel the wounds that may be beyond healing.
As Solomon, Ejiofor gives an electrifying, engulfing performance that will be talked about for years. The educated Solomon is forbidden to protest his situation or even articulate it. Not without being beaten or worse. But Ejiofor's eyes, deep pools of confusion, pain and barely repressed rage, tell us all we need to know. Want proof that acting can be an art form? Here it is.
McQueen, following the lead of his first two features, 2008's Hunger, about IRA prisoners starving themselves in protest, and 2011's Shame, about sex addiction, works in long, fluid takes that defy the trend toward smash-and-grab. The dividends are enormous. We are with Solomon every step of the way after he is renamed Platt Hamilton by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti, radiating evil charm) and sold to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Bible reader. Unfortunately, Ford's benign approach is not matched by boss Tibeats (a creepy-scary Paul Dano), who baits Platt until the slave beats him senseless. Stringing Platt up on the nearest tree, Tibeats is persuaded to halt until Ford returns. During that wait, Platt still hangs, his toes brushing the ground just enough to prevent his neck from snapping. McQueen draws out the lynching in excruciating detail, showing plantation life going on in real time as Platt struggles to stay conscious and alive. The sequence, a microcosm of the neglectful world outside, is stunningly realized as we hold our breath along with Platt.
Things only get worse when Platt is sold to cotton-plantation owner and self-proclaimed "nigger breaker" Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a drunk who uses Scripture to justify his sadism with a whip. He taunts his wife (the excellent Sarah Paulson) by repeatedly raping Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a slave girl who movingly begs Platt to drown her. In a staggering sequence, Epps forces Platt to whip Patsey until her slender back is literally in shreds. But even here, when the script skirts melodrama, the Oscar-caliber portrayals stay fully dimensional. Nyong'o, from a Kenyan family, is a spectacular young actress who imbues Patsey with grit and radiant grace. And Fassbender, who starred in McQueen's Hunger and Shame, works miracles by revealing shards of feeling inside a monster. Fassbender is a raging bonfire who cuts to the core of a film that shows how slavery dehumanizes the oppressor as well as the oppressed.
When Platt finally meets Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter who helps engineer his escape, there is little relief. Tranquilizing nostalgia is not for McQueen, who sees racism still festering in so-called polite society. Proving himself a world-class director, McQueen basically makes slaves of us all. It hurts to watch it. You won't be able to tuck this powder keg in the corner of your mind and forget it. What we have here is a blistering, brilliant, straight-up classic.