Based on the eponymous memoir, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man kidnapped into slavery to work on Southern plantation farms in antebellum America. Living happily with his wife and children in New York, Solomon is a gifted violin player, and gets tricked into following two men to Washington DC: they hire him as a musician for their circus, but after the shows are all done, get him drunk and sell him off to illegal slave traders. Solomon is shipped to New Orleans under horrific circumstances (one of the other slaves is killed by the captain when he tries to protect a slave woman from being raped), and meets his buyer (Paul Giamatti) who quickly organises an auction to make a profit off of his newest batch of slaves.
Solomon is bought by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), and taken to his farm where he almost immediately makes an enemy of overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) by showing off his engineering skills to Ford and gaining the latter’s approval. Although Ford is, as far as a slave owner goes, a decent man, he can’t protect Solomon from Tibeats and so sells him on to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps prides himself on breaking people, and has severe anger management issues. Solomon eventually manages to earn some money with his violin playing, but when he gives it to fellow, white, slave Armsby (Garret Dillahunt), he uses it to buy his own freedom and disappears without ever fulfilling his promise to contact Solomon’s family so that they could send his papers proving he is a free man. And so it is only after twelve years when Solomon meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian profoundly and openly opposed to slavery, that he sees his chance to escape.
12 Years a Slave is a quintessentially American film about the country’s greatest sin. Using their god-given right to own their fellow men as property to do with as they please, the traders and plantation owners are the worst of humanity but also victims of their time. On the one hand, Ford treats his slaves with respect (he even gives Solomon a violin) and on the other hand, Epps tortures them emotionally and physically with a deeply sadistic pleasure. They both quote from the bible constantly, and yet one’s darkness is far greater than the other’s.
The problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it is a quintessentially American film. It is hard to digest the truths of the film – well-known as they are – and care much for the slaves, because the feeling of guilt is missing. It isn’t entirely clear whether that’s due to the non-American viewpoint or because the script doesn’t actually make any efforts to have you empathise with Solomon. There is a whole lot of telling, and not much showing: about the only thing you do see is a good amount of violence, but that alone doesn’t really get you emotionally involved. Solomon never really seems all that bothered that he is a slave now, choosing rather to accept his fate. Although he states early on that he doesn’t just want to survive, he spends the decade doing just that – and even shouting at a woman who’s crying at the loss of her children. If he has chosen to suppress his emotions it is never made clear what drove him to that decision.
Intriguingly, Solomon himself isn’t entirely a good man: when told to punish a fellow slave woman because she ran away to get some soap, he takes the whip and doesn’t show much emotion while she’s screaming at the pole. Maybe Chiwetel Ejiofor’s flat performance is at fault here more than the script, or maybe it’s both; not much is done with his willingness to be evil himself in either case.
12 Years a Slave is filled with average performances, some disappointing ones and only really one outstanding tour-de-force. Benedict Cumberbatch disappoints (it’s mainly his horrific attempt at a Southern accent), Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard and Garret Dillahunt don’t get enough screentime to shine, Lupita Nyong’o does a decent job of a stereotypical character and Paul Dano isn’t given enough character depth to deliver a truly compelling performance. Michael Fassbender, however, excels in his portrayal of plantation owner Epps and portrays the emotional spectrum of god-fearing man to perverted sadist to self-obsessed lover with such bravura it feels like he is the true star of the film. It’s a testament to Fassbender’s skills, but it’s also proof that the script is very conflicted: surely we should emptathise with the slaves and not be intrigued by the anti-hero. Perhaps it would have been better if Solomon had been played by someone who could match Fassbender’s emotional range instead of Chiwetel Ejiofor.
When watching 12 Years a Slave, you can’t help but feel that many of the movie’s accolades are based entirely on the fact that it is an American film about an American subject made for American audiences. Cinema specific to a country’s history isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but in this particular case it is done badly because it fails to bridge the gap to foreign audiences. Is it a must-see? No. As hard as McQueen has tried to deliver a masterpiece, he has created a cinematographically stunning but badly written film – nevermind the fact that he fails entirely to convey the passage of time, and if it weren’t for the title the entire story might as well have taken place over the course of six months.