12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen's extraordinary, essential new film, begins in the middle. The choice is something of an aberration, for McQueen proves throughout the rest of the movie that he knows better than to add any narrative or directorial flourishes to a powerful true story that requires neither. This prologue lasts only a few minutes, after which we flash back to where the story properly begins, with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) living happily with his wife and children in New York, and enjoying a successful career as a respected violinist. From there, McQueen will follow Solomon, in linear fashion and with harrowing realism, through his kidnapping, his being sold into slavery, and all 12 years of his decent into Hell.
So why begin with this strange flash-forward, which shows us Solomon already enslaved? The clue, I think, lies in this prologue's final scenes, in which we see Solomon huddling in secrecy, attempting to fashion the necessary implements to write a plea for help. We see him carve a crude pen from a piece of wood. We see him trying to fashion ink from the juice of blackberries. We see him, finally, attempt to put words on the one piece of paper he has, only to watch the letters bleed and pool and disperse into nothingness. The makeshift ink won't hold; the words won't stay; the story he needs to tell cannot be told.
12 Years a Slave begins where I suspect McQueen, screenwriter John Ridley, and everyone involved began: with frustration. Frustration at the elusiveness of the subject; frustration with the incomprehensible challenge of the task; frustration with the apparent inability of American cinema, thus far, to truly tell the story of American slavery. It should be such a simple thing—to tell these stories that we all should know, that we all should be required to know—and yet it has proven so difficult. It should be such an important thing—to tackle, with honesty and forthrightness, this most significant and fundamental crime in our own history—and yet the attempts to do so have been so few, and so feeble. In over 100 years of movies—40,000 releases is a conservative estimate of their number—there have been no more than a handful of films that have attempted to deal with slavery at all. (The Wikipedia page for "films featuring slavery" lists only two dozen entries: this list is not definitive, of course, but its brevity is certainly telling.) For the most part, even the best intentioned of these films have been lies, the vital truths at their centers blurring, like Solomon's ink, into candy-colored, sickly-sweet stains on the record of history.
The story of American slavery cannot ever truly be told, of course, in any film: its scale is too large, its stories too many, the scope of its injustice and insanity and suffering too unfathomably great. No one film could encapsulate it all, and no one story can be presented as typical: by definition, any story of survival, any story of escape, any story that managed to be told, is an exceptional story, unusual and atypical. No film will be the "final word" on slavery: there will always be more stories to tell. What matters is that we tell them, and tell them as honestly as we can, and tell them well.
And watching 12 Years a Slave, one can't help but wonder why that has been so difficult. For McQueen's movie feels like a revolutionary thing, and yet it really shouldn't: if this film strikes us as a revelation it is only because we are unaccustomed to seeing the truths we all understand presented on-screen without adornment and gloss. From Gone with the Wind to Django Unchained, we are used to having our slavery with a spoonful of sugar, soaked in a syrup of nostalgia, phony comfort, and self-congratulation.
12 Years a Slave, on the other hand, is revolutionary only in its remarkable—and ridiculously rare—eschewing of illusion. For example, it seems ridiculous to have to point out that the slaves in this movie are not happy: they are miserable, they are suffering, they are frequently in the very depths of despair. This should not be a startling presentation, and yet it is, somehow: the slaves McQueen shows us are not, of course, the reassuring fantasies of gleefully happy servants the worst of Old Hollywood had to offer—but neither are they the inspirational figures from more recent and "enlightened" films, enduring their hardships through spirituality, good-natured humor, and the resilience of the human spirit. We see real spirituality, and we see genuinely inspirational strength, but McQueen never lets us for a moment forget that these people are surviving a way of life that no human being could accept for a moment, let alone acclimate to. This should be the most self-evident of truths—the first thing any of us should know in our hearts about slavery—and yet it is a truth that perhaps no other filmmaker has dared to put so nakedly on-screen.
It helps, to be sure, that McQueen was wise in his choice of stories to tell. Solomon Northup's story is not typical, in that he was a free-born American citizen. The son of a freed slave, Northup was raised and educated in New York State, and became a sought-after violinist. As the story begins, in 1841, we see him and his family living a happy, comfortable life not noticeably different from those of the whites with whom they socialize; when two circus owners (Taram Killam and Scoot McNairy) hire Solomon for a two-week engagement in Washington, DC, it doesn't seem to occur to him to be nervous about the trip to slave country. Why would it? He is a free man, and the idea of waking up in chains is as inconceivable to him as it would be to any of us.
And yet that's exactly what happens, after a night of drinking with his new-found "friends." Solomon wakes in a grimy cell, chained to a wall, and his outrage at this injustice is powerful and primal: he pulls against his restraints angrily as though he would pull his own arms off to regain his freedom. Too many movies about people of color have felt the need to give white audiences a white protagonist with whom they can identify: 12 Years a Slave does not—thankfully—do that, but in Solomon Northup we have a character to whommodern viewers—of any race—can relate: his journey feels like a trip back in time, to a way of life that is as incomprehensible to him as it would be to us. As much as this is a true story, this is also a device, and a subtle, clever one. We begin with the gut-level reaction that Solomon, of course, should not be a slave—he is a free man, as he protests throughout the film—and from there it is an unavoidable step to the fundamental understanding that no one should be. One would hope that we can all understand that such an injustice is no more palatable for a human being captured in Africa than for one captured in our nation's capitol, but here Solomon's very exceptionalism becomes a stepping stone to empathy.
This first scene of Solomon in his cell is also our first indication that McQueen is determined to approach this material differently than most other directors would, for Solomon is beaten, and we see the beating without any edits or directorial flourishes. Again, this should not be a revolutionary technique, but it is, for McQueen does not filter the experience for us at all; he does not show it in dramatic slow-motion, he does not cut away, he does not fade out on the horrible sounds of brutality and fill the soundtrack with swelling emotional music. He just makes us watch Solomon being beaten, in real-time, from a middle-distance, without the palliative cushion of craft. Throughout the film, McQueen's restraint and clarity are breathtaking, even as the images he shows us are horrific. This is what slavery looked like, he seems to say: not the falsely manipulative beauty of Spielberg, nor the fetishized violence of Tarantino, but this.
Solomon's journey takes him through a number of situations, and into encounters with a number of different people, black and white alike, and 12 Years a Slave is remarkable for the depth of understanding and complexity McQueen brings to each: there are no caricatures here. In Old Hollywood we are accustomed to seeing cartoonish blacks; in more recent films, we are accustomed to seeing cartoonishly evil whites, from whom white audiences can comfortably distance themselves. Here, we see the humanity in each character, even if we recognize their "type." Benedict Cumberbatch, for example, plays Ford, the "best" kind of slave-owner, a Southern gentleman who recognizes Northup's qualities and treats him—within the relative limitations of the time—"kindly." But we also see the limitations of that kindness, the fundamentally unforgivable power-dynamics of this society that make it literally impossible for kindness to exist. Ford is a corrective to Gone with the Wind's Ashley Wilkes, a welcome rejection of the notion that there could be any such thing as a "good" slave-owner.
And Michael Fassbender plays Edwin Epps, the other traditional type of slave-owner, a harsh and cruel overlord who treats his slaves as property to do with as he will. Solomon spends the longest portion of his enslavement on the Epps plantation, and it here that McQueen most artfully explores the madness of the institution of slavery for whites and blacks alike. Both Epps and his wife (Sarah Paulson)—in different ways—seem to have been driven quite literally insane by the dynamics of this society: it would require more charity than I have in me to call them victims, but it is important to note that neither are they cardboard, stock figures of evil: they are human beings irredeemably corrupted by a corrupt way of life, and Fassbender is particularly adept at showing us both the demons within Epps and his subconscious awareness that they should never have been given such free rein.
Epps is besotted with one of his slaves, a beautiful woman named Patsey, played with extraordinary depth by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o. This, too, is a familiar situation from both history and from films about slavery, but never has it been portrayed with such heartbreaking, clear-eyed realism as it is here. Though Mrs. Epps calls Patsey her husband's mistress—and irrationally hates the woman for it—what Patsey is, of course, is a victim of sustained, systemic rape, and neither McQueen nor Nyong'o's haunting performance let us forget it for a moment.
It is Chiwetel Ejiofor, however, who anchors every moment of 12 Years a Slave, and makes it not just a great movie about slavery but a great movie about a person. There are so many ways McQueen, Ridley, and Ejiofor could have gone wrong with this story, we watch in slack-jawed amazement as they all make—over and over again—the exact right choices. I have always regarded Ejiofor as one of our finest actors, but I realize now that that was a hunch more than an opinion; he has always had remarkable screen presence, but he has never before had the kind of role he has here, and he's simply astonishing. He takes a juicy role that seems to beg for melodrama and outward expressions of feeling, and turns 90 percent of his character's emotions inward, wearing pain, suffering, despair, and hope alike with quiet dignity, a tenuous strength that threatens every moment to break but never quite does. He will, if there is any justice, be nominated for all the awards this season, and he will deserve to win them.
As will McQueen, and as will 12 Years a Slave. To say this is the best movie of the year—by a country mile—is to damn it with faint praise, because it is a much more important work than that, a vital corrective to 100 years of cinematic lies. I said earlier that no one film can—or should be expected to—summarize the experience of slavery in the United States, and this one doesn't. Neither can any one film heal the irreparable wounds of slavery, and this one—mercifully—doesn't try. It is no spoiler to say that the film has a happy ending—of sorts—for the spoiler is in the title, and in the fact that Northup went on to write the 1853 autobiography on which the film is based. But the last of the perfect choices McQueen makes is to give us Northup's longed-for freedom while denying us the falsely uplifting ending that lesser directors would not be able to resist. Solomon is a survivor, but his survival is not a symbol, a devastating blow against the institution of slavery itself, or a redemption for anything that has come before: the eventual correcting of his injustice does nothing to make us forget what he has been through, or the continued suffering of those he leaves behind. His is just one story—of strength and luck—emerging from millions of stories still untold.
But McQueen and his extraordinary cast and crew have demonstrated how slavery stories can be told, and in the process they have cast shame on a century of filmmakers—from D.W. Griffith to Quentin Tarantino—who have failed so spectacularly to tell them before. It turns out that the elusive formula for this magic is really very simple: you simply assemble a great set of artists, and you commit to telling the truth, and you make an honest, uncompromising movie.