Twelve Years a Slave tells the true tale of Solomon Northrop, a freeman from New York who is drugged and betrayed and illegally sold into slavery in Louisiana of the 1850’s. There, stripped of his dignity and personhood, he endures the entire gobsmacking, nauseating gamut of white racism (from careless to sadistic), and survives, albeit barely, with a massive and insurmountable scar on his psyche.
It’s a fierce, burning film and absolutely necessary. It is brutal and razor-sharp and unstinting in its observations of white supremacism, and it gives the audience none of those characters Hollywood usually throws out as a sop for whites to identify with and to assuage their guilt. The only decent white American gets about one minute of screentime, tops, and you wouldn’t remember his face if it punched you. The rest: despicable, each in their own way. Not that the black characters are all painted as saints either; they each work with what they’re given, even if that is next to nothing at all.
And this, I think, is the movie’s persuasiveness. It gives the audience nowhere to hide, scorches the earth, and then still twists the knife a little further. The abhorrence, sheer, utter abhorrence, is palpable and unforgettable. I had nightmares, for instance, about the betrayal of a very minor character early on in the narrative, and I haven’t really been able to shake it since.
Having said that, it’s not a perfect film – though I think that would’ve been almost impossible to achieve in any movie where the protagonist is essentially forced into a position of hopeless passivity, where things happen to him rather than through his own agency. I was horrified by instances of jaw-dropping cruelty, but the movie also didn’t crackle with tension or terror or dread – perhaps because we know that Solomon gets out. But that’s just an intellectual response to what’s quite clearly a visceral, beautifully crafted and emotional film.
Oh, and one last thing: Lupita Nyong’o – simply superb.