12 Years a Slave

In the 1840s, a free black man from upstate New York found himself kidnapped and sold into slavery. After a dozen years in hell, his rescue came from an abolitionist played by Brad Pitt. Ah, did we lose you? Fortunately, 12 Years a Slave is not only a minor vanity project for Pitt, who is one of its producers, but also a courageous step forward for director Steve McQueen, previously the maker of Hunger and Shame, and a great showpiece for Chiwetel Ejiofor, devastatingly good as Solomon Northup, the man whose brutal true story this is. As is his wont, McQueen (with writer John Ridley) proceeds less as storyteller than as rigorous aficionado of composure under extreme duress. A modest but cultivated man, a husband and father, Northup absorbs many episodes of evil, and the shock of shattered self-possession. He exemplifies the dignity of endurance. Ejiofor has a lot to work with, and it’s all in his voice, his body, his eyes. McQueen’s familiar collaborator Michael Fassbender stands out among other pungent if short-lived supporting performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Michael K. Williams, Sarah Paulson, and Lupita Nyong’o. A recurring piece of Hans Zimmer’s music sounds like a piece from Inception which lent some emotional heft to that film and therefore arguably takes some away from this one; viewers who recognize the piece may be thrown out of the moment (willingly, as it’s a long and intense and merciless moment) and start expecting Leonardo DiCaprio to show up, which in turn might remind them of Django Unchained, possibly the last thing McQueen wants. As a history, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t seem to bother asking whether we’re more morally enlightened now; it already knows the unfortunate answer.