Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives comfortably with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in the early 1800s — a time when far too many black people are far less fortunate. But for Northup, everyday life has nothing to do with slavery. An impressive violinist, he moves freely through white society and dresses in the style of a gentleman.
And like any gentleman, Northup appreciates having his ego stroked. So when two white men offer him a job as fiddler with a traveling circus, he’s only too happy to accept. But after sharing a meal with them in Washington, D.C., he wakes up in chains.
Thus begins Northup’s nightmare, which includes being renamed Platt and subjected to the degradation that comes with being a slave.
Northup struggles to hold onto his dignity while being careful not to reveal his true identity to those who claim to own him. But it’s hard for him to ignore the plight of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a strong but despairing woman who must endure the unwanted attention of their slaveholder, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Based on a memoir by the real-life Northup, “12 Years a Slave” is one of the best and most courageous films of the year. Working from a screenplay by John Ridley, director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) refuses to soften the brutalities of slavery for mainstream consumption. True, McQueen occasionally flirts with the kind of melodrama that has long been associated with tales of plantation life. But a prolonged scene in which Patsey is mercilessly whipped just about dares moviegoers not to turn away.
Ejiofor delivers an Oscar-worthy performance that’s at once wholly realized and heartbreaking. Fassbender, a McQueen regular, is chillingly memorable as a man for whom black people are nothing more than property.
What “Schindler’s List” was to the Holocaust, “12 Years a Slave” is to what has been called “the peculiar institution”: ultimately hopeful, but uncompromising in its commitment to exposing a tragic chapter in history.
What “12 Years a Slave” • Four stars out of four • Rating R • Run time 2:14 • Content Violence/cruelty, nudity, sexuality