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Cruelty Unchained. Twelve Years A Slave, Reviewed.

Illustration for article titled Cruelty Unchained. Twelve Years A Slave, Reviewed.

1. Twelve Years a Slave is a devastating movie experience, one that will leave you shaking with anger. This is not an attempt to shed new light on the shame of slavery, or, heaven forbid, a winky postmodern re-imagining of slavery as a self-referential cinematic revenge fantasy. (After seeing Twelve Years a Slave, Django Unchained begins to morph quickly in the imagination from fun-if-slight to something a little more grotesque.) This is, in straight-faced, matter-of-fact, cool (if not clinical) fashion, a simple chronicling of the horrors of slavery, a deep dive into our country's most appalling sin. There is nothing redeeming here. This was perpetuated by evil men, telling themselves it was merely "business," living under a rule of law that not only allowed such cruelty, but encouraged it. This is a world that is inescapable. There is no whimsy, or charm, or atmosphere. It is a world without hope.


2. The movie is told through the eyes of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free Northerner, a carpenter and musician, who is kidnaped from his family and sold at auction in Louisiana. (He wrote the titular memoir in 1853.) It quickly becomes apparent to him that his intelligence and formal education—as well as his understanding of what it means to be free—serves as nothing but a detriment to him: That he knows he is lost only makes it more torturous. First he works for a "kindly" master (Benedict Cumberbatch, smartly playing up his character's cowardice at pretending he is a good man when he is not) before being sold into the cruel, sadistic plantation owned by Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a noted "slave-breaker." We watch as Northup loses everything, from his identity (to hide his kidnapping, he is known as "Pratt") to his dignity, to, most crushingly, his hope. The movie's major moment of transition is when Northup stops pretending he's ever going to escape and accepts that the only goal is to survive.

3. The movie looks at slavery dead-eyed, pitiless. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) never needs to stack the deck, so he doesn't. He just shows us scenes directly from the book, from the real world that once existed in this country. It is on us to sit and watch the scene in which Northup, having angered his field master, is strung from a tree to hang with his feet just touching the ground, shifting and gasping for air, for a full day. (The horror is so common on the plantation that not only does no one stop to help him, they barely stop to notice.) It is on us to sit and watch as a woman is killed for crying too loudly after her children are taken away from here. It is on us to sit and watch as Epps's sexually depraved master rapes and tortures one of his female slaves, while his wife screams at him to be more careful with his property. McQueen never shows off his technique, never overdoes anything. He knows the importance of what he's doing. He makes sure everything lands with the appropriate cataclysmic impact. The quiet fury is overwhelming.

4. It is one thing to read or be told about the inhumanity of slavery, but it is quite another to see those inhumanities on such vivid display. In fact, there's something noble in McQueen's approach, in his insistence that we be forced to look at what really happened, in long takes, in chilling closeup. We cannot hide from this past, a past that's still a part of us. The movie features some sharp, terrifying performances, particularly from Fassbender, who is all rotting teeth and self-disgust festering under the shield of power, but they never stand apart from the story and what's happening. The script, by John Ridley, is unusually focused, and able to convey historical import without ever reaching outside the individual circumstances. There is a seriousness to this project, and everyone involved; they seem fixated on getting it exactly right.

5. This is technically Northup's story, and both McQueen and Ejiofor do well not to make him a cipher, a mere vessel through which to tell of slavery's ills. He is a man who tries to get back to his family but recognizes how impossible this will be; he is a man who can't escape the horrors yet is still, as a man, incapable of numbing himself to them. Ejiofor is outstanding at capturing the internal cross-currents of someone trying to disguise the pride and determination he will need to survive; it's a massive, staggering performance. But this movie is not about breakthrough, or catharsis. It is about this country's original sin, displayed in all its repugnance. Twelve Years a Slave shows a world where cruelty and despair were built into the system; they were the engines of profit, of business. And there was no escape. It will make you furious. It will make you want to scream.

Grade: A

Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.