Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a professional musician living with his wife and children as free blacks in enlightened upstate New York before the American Civil War. He accepts a job touring with a circus, and after getting drunk one evening with his colleagues he is put to bed, only to awaken in the morning in chains with no recollection of how he got there. When he protests that he is a free man and must be released immediately, he is beaten terribly and loaded on to a boat to be transported to a southern state and sold, beginning 12 years of tremendous pain and degradation at the hands of plantation owners.
12 Years a Slave is an exquisitely constructed film, with the beauty of the visuals in stark contrast with the unflinching brutality of the action. The ugliness of the violence that is unthinkingly meted out is more than matched by the ugly character of many of the white southerners whom Northup encounters. Absolutely appropriately, no punches are pulled in depicting the hideous inhumanity of the slave owners; there are no laughs to be found here a la Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy.
An impressive cast fill out supporting roles both small and large, including the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt. Director Steve McQueen’s regular leading man Michael Fassbender is impressively vile as Edwin Epps, a drunken hypocrite who regards his slaves as chattel to be used for labour and for his own perverse amusement when they’re not in the fields. Chiwetel Ejifor is magnificent as Northup, moving from terrified incomprehension about what has happened to him to stoic determination to endure and be reunited with his family.
This magnificent, shocking work is likely to become a sort of reference text about the horrors of one of the darkest chapters in America’s (and by extension the UK’s and others who supported the traffic in humans) history.