12 Years a Slave starts out as a melodrama served cold. Its protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), was a real person, but his name couldn’t be more fitting: He was an engineer, a husband, father of two, violinist, and respectable citizen of the spa town of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., when he was abducted by slavers in 1841. The sketch we have of his home life is about as detailed as a Christmas card, but maybe anyone’s memories of his former life would be as swaddled in gauze given the circumstances that these are remembered from. Far away, down South, Northup struggles to make a missive out of a reed and one of the three berries he’s been rationed for dessert; the makeshift ink blots on the page, forming an unintelligible puddle. His own words have been stolen from him.
At first, the movie, directed by Steve McQueen from a screenplay by John Ridley, fumbled with my trust. Were the con men—who hesitate to call their enterprise a circus; never a good start—meant to sound as if 19th-century English was not their first language? Are they bad actors or playing bad actors? Either way, goosebumps rise on cue. I get the point, but maybe it’s rather shrewd: within five minutes of tucking in his darlings, Solomon is flayed, caged, and a commodity on a steamship. The events are brutal, and so is the storytelling technique. McQueen’s use of celebrity cameos in this sequence is a stunning coup of hopeless dread: Michael K. Williams, familiar from his resilient hoods on The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, is gagged and buried at sea in minutes; Paul Giamatti slaps and prods his hard-bodied merchandise at auction—the sound effect used is a Looney Tune whiplash—and his spare, mercantile diction spits all the warm feelings associated with him back at the audience’s face. The There Will Be Blood modernist thuds on the soundtrack when we see the boat’s wheel spinning are the first indication of the movie’s theme; the second is Giamatti’s reply to Benedict Cumberbatch when the latter, playing an upscale customer, evinces disgust at separating a mother from her daughter: “My sentiments extend the length of a coin.” Cumberbatch looks like Jefferson Davis and is about as ineffectual; he buys the mother and he buys Northup.
Although Cumberbatch’s planter is shown as a benign despot, an embodiment of the limitations of Southern courtliness, the melodrama continues unabated at his plantation. Paul Dano is making a career out of pathetic bullies; here he’s a cracker who holds Northup in contempt and tries to lynch him. This turns out to be the most thinly conceived sequence—his hatred has no more dimensions than the sadistic zookeeper’s did in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Though he shows Northup—rebranded as “Platt”—favor, Cumberbatch lets him down right on schedule, and pawns his tarnished merchandise off on a “nigger beater” named Epps (Michael Fassbender). It’s here that the plot and the dialogue—it sounds too theatrical to be common speech, but how’s one to know?—begin to transcend tendentiousness. Still, the film has already done something that I think is humane, controversial, and radically accurate all at once: Northup is inuring himself to his new station. He hasn’t given up, but he’s coping. 12 Years a Slave is presenting slavery as something that actually happened to actual people.