The year’s most harrowing movie scene begins with Solomon Northup standing on his tiptoes in mud, a noose around his neck tied over the end of a limb almost tall enough to hang him.
A white overseer, unwilling to interrupt punishment of a black field hand by another white employee, rides off to get the plantation owner. Black slaves go about their chores with hooded eyes, walking away from a fate that could befall any of them. A girl furtively offers Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) water as he struggles, then slips off. Finally, the master comes to slash the rope.
The film’s title, “12 Years a Slave,” makes such things endurable, because we know the outcome. The script, adapted by John Ridley from a memoir Northup wrote after being restored to liberty, ends happily. But as we watch a finite horror envelop Northup, we imagine the infinite horror of people trapped in lifelong captivity.
Given the subject matter, British director Steve McQueen shows unexpected restraint. We get only one long and savage beating of a slave. A master’s rapid rape of a black girl begins and ends quietly. A captive who interferes with another sexual assault is stabbed wordlessly, then dumped off a riverboat in a body bag.
Yet McQueen sustains an atmosphere of discomfort: Like the slaves, we never know when the whip will descend. He and Ridley don’t need the trashy sadism of “Django Unchained” to explode the antebellum myth of fond slaves and caring masters, perpetuated by such nonsense as “Gone With the Wind.”
After an introduction to Northup’s plight on a Louisiana plantation, we see him as he was: a man who earned his living as a musician and gained the respect of blacks and whites in Saratoga, N.Y., by 1841.
When his wife rides off for a few weeks to make money as a cook, taking their children, Northup accepts a temporary job fiddling for a circus in Washington, D.C. Two men get him drunk there, chain him and sell him to a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), who markets him as a Georgia runaway.
The movie doesn’t demonize whites. One master (Benedict Cumberbatch) treats Northup kindly, giving him a violin to play and encouraging him to use engineering skills to float logs down a river. Another lets him keep money he makes while fiddling at a ball. Yet the inevitable difference between the races – one is property, one is not – means kindness and consideration can end at any moment.
So they do, after Northup gets sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a Bible-quoting predator who delights in breaking slaves’ spirits. In one long, eye-to-eye scene, Epps glares at Northup, who lies his way out of a predicament; you’re not sure if Epps will believe Northup or stab him. (Or believe him and stab him anyway.)
The real tragedy of Northup’s captivity is not the abuse or pain he faces; it’s the suppression of his intellect and talent, the silencing of his articulate speech in a culture where the ability to read and write could get a black man killed. He holds out psychologically as long as he can. But when he joins in the spiritual “Roll Jordan Roll” at a slave funeral, a song where the only hope for deliverance comes in heaven, we know he has given up.
You may wonder why you should see such a film. Why even make it, 160 years later?
The answer to the first question, assuming you don’t need the historical corrective, may be to admire the extraordinary acting of Ejiofor and Fassbender, the well-judged cinematography of Sean Bobbitt (who shot McQueen’s previous features, “Hunger” and “Shame”) and the subtlest score Hans Zimmer has composed.
The answer to the second requires more thought. Most nations, ours included, still tolerate some form of slavery or indentured servitude. (Read human rights reports.) And “12 Years” shows the cruelty of denying not only someone’s freedom but his identity. Take away the essence of a human being – whether he’s in fetters or not – and you destroy him.