A British director's compelling depiction of American slavery

12 Years a Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen

Opens at the Charles Theatre Oct. 25

Survival isn't about escaping death, it's about keeping your head down: This maxim guides most of Solomon Northup's actions in the dozen years he is enslaved. It's a principle shared by nearly every slave he encounters in 12 Years a Slave, set in the 1840s South. In one sequence, while Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) tiptoes in mud for hours on end, doing all he can to keep the noose around his neck from killing him, other slaves emerge from their shacks in the background and go about their day. At one point, two African-American boys play a game in the field behind him. In this way of life, they are forced to ignore their own humanity lest they, too, receive punishment.

Director Steve McQueen shoots this sequence in a series of shallow-focus full shots and close-ups. He's given to long takes that push the viewer to soak up the desperation and hopelessness of the situation. The British director, who will surely gain mainstream recognition for this effort, frames his shots like paintings. He excels at composing them in ways that maximize one's ability to empathize with Solomon and the myriad other victims depicted in 12 Years a Slave. When Solomon is beaten the first time-first with a wooden paddle, then with a whip-McQueen positions his camera level with the floor, presenting us with a low-angle shot, again in shallow focus, that shows Solomon's anguished face as well as the force with which his wounds are applied.

The narrative here departs from other slave tales like Amistad, Roots, Django Unchained, and many others in that, when it opens, the protagonist is an African-American man born free. Solomon's an accomplished violinist, a father of two, and a loving husband from upstate New York. We see snatches of his life in Saratoga-Solomon putting his kids to sleep for the night, laying in bed with his wife; his family walking into a clothier's store, being warmly greeted by the white proprietor.

When his family leaves for a three-week period, he happens upon an opportunity to participate for two weeks in a traveling circus bound for Washington, D.C., offered to him by two mustachioed men whose over-eager demeanors exude untrustworthiness. Nonetheless, Solomon travels to D.C. with them, thinking he's earning a tidy sum to take home. After a drunken dinner celebration, however, he wakes in a darkened cell and discovers himself in chains.

What follows is a persistently brutal and repeatedly shocking saga. After being imprisoned and shipped south by steamboat, Solomon is sold off by an utterly merciless slave trader named Freeman (Paul Giamatti). He's bought by Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a "decent man," by Solomon's estimation, who gives a violin to Solomon-or Pratt, as he is renamed. When Ford does so, though, he says benevolently, "I hope it brings us both much joy over the years." To our ears and surely to Solomon's, it almost sounds like a death sentence.

Many individuals populate this story, but few receive significant character development. Those who do challenge Solomon's idea of what it means to survive.

There is Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a mother of two, kidnapped into slavery at the same time as Solomon and sold along with him to the Fords. Mrs. Ford (Liza J. Bennett), in a horrifying attempt at sympathy, tells Eliza that with "something to eat and some rest, your children will soon be forgotten." Obviously this salve doesn't take, and Eliza remains openly mournful. When Solomon tries to tell Eliza to deal with her grief more internally, that Mr. Ford could be worse, she rejects his words vehemently. Quiet subjugation is not for her, no matter the master; it will not improve her fate in the end.

There is Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who Solomon meets when he moves on to Edwin Epps' cotton plantation (McQueen casts Michael Fassbender in a major role for a third time here). Patsey has won Epps' favor and attention by picking upwards of 500 pounds of cotton each day, but that brings her only misery-as Epps' wife (Sarah Paulson), trapped in her own situation, sees this and abuses Patsey for it. Patsey, too, bucks Solomon's notion of survival, deprived as she is of the option of keeping her head down.

Solomon, by nature a genteel man, attempts to abide by the letter of his masters' law as much as possible to avoid repercussions, but we see time and again the absence of logic and principle in every slave master, even Ford. There is no survival strategy to be found: Slavery tries to forcibly strip one of his or her humanity and dignity, living or dead, and that can never be wholly restored. Even when Solomon's 12 years come to an end, as we know they will (the screenplay is based on the real Solomon Northup's memoir of the same name), he finds deliverance but not justice.

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