"I don't want to survive. I want to live." - Solomon Northrup
As detailed above, the plot is based on the first-hand account of Northrup, who was an accomplished violinist in New York and spent 12 years as a slave in the South, most of that time spent as the property of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the sadistic owner of a cotton plantation. What's notable about this film is how brutally it depicts the realities of slavery: this isn't like last year's Django Unchained, Tarantino's western romp that could never be described as "realistic" (there was plenty of controversy about that film's treatment of the institution). These depictions, as presented by McQueen (and working from a script by John Ridley), could never have been made by an American director.
What do I mean by that? I've written before about what a difference it makes for a non-American director to take on American culture (almost always in the context of Chinatown, but I've taken film classes and everything always goes back to Chinatown apparently). McQueen, who is British and of Grenadian descent, brings with him the perspective of an outsider to the institution, not only as a non-American but also as a black director. This is especially important, considered together, because it's hard to imagine any black American director getting the funding to make this kind of movie (even the most likely candidate, Spike Lee, would be endlessly criticized out of fear of making a movie that demonizes white America). As Cheney noted in his piece, being British takes a lot of the weight of expectations and taboo of slavery that weighs down on American perspectives, and McQueen takes advantage of this with his own singular style.
McQueen's previous films, Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), were both terrific, beautiful films that had a common flaw preventing them from being masterpieces: McQueen always seemed emotionally detached from his characters, resulting in the effect of looking at an art instillation rather than real people in a real world (McQueen, before becoming a director, was a visual artist). This film represents a correction of that, as he invests us in the plight of Solomon and the other slaves that he encounters. Perhaps a part of this is that the material itself is going to elicit strong emotional responses no matter what, as well as the fact that this is the first feature McQueen has made in which he does not have a writing credit.
But much of the credit belongs to McQueen's willingness to let the camera linger on specific images. The most famous incidence of this comes when Solomon is about to be lynched by Tibeats (Paul Dano), an overseer he insulted at Ford's (Benedict Cumberbatch) plantation. Tibeats is stopped, but Solomon, barely keeping himself from choking by scraping his toes in the mud, is forced to hang there until Ford returns in the evening. McQueen's camera lingers on this moment for around a full minute, but it feels like forever, as we watch Solomon struggling to keep his feet on the ground while, most powerfully, the other slaves carry on in the background as if he were invisible. This is the film's greatest power: by not cutting away, there is no relief from the torment Solomon and the other slaves endure.
Of course, it helps that the cast provides terrific performances all-around. Ejiofor has been doing great work for years, and this role is finally letting his talents be noticed by a much-larger audience. This is pure acting, as much of his communication is through silence, going from a man hopeful that justice will right the wrong that's being done to him to becoming more and more a shell of his former self. In keeping with the idea of an outsider perspective, Solomon himself is an outsider - a freeman - entering a world that he does not understand. Ejiofor imbues him with that naiveté, allowing him to become broken by the reality that here, he is not considered a human being, but rather property. Astonishing, too, is Lupita Nyong'o, who appears as Patsy, the "favored" slave of Epps. Nyong'o's arc is particularly brutal, as her Patsy is subjected both to being raped by Edwin Epps and physically abused by Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) for being Edwin's favorite. She stuns as a woman so thoroughly broken by this system of abuse that she wishes for death at every turn. Similarly, both Fassbender and Paulson do harrowing work as the Epps, playing their characters as people who embrace slavery because of the wealth it brings them, and neither ever once asks for audience sympathy. Even the roles that only last a scene or two - Dano's Tibeats, Brad Pitt's sympathetic Canadian Bass, Alfre Woodard's married-out-of-slavery Mistress Shaw - are fine work that only add to texture of life in the antebellum South.
12 Years a Slave is a game-changer in cinema about American slavery: it's a major film that doesn't take the focus away from the slave themselves, the victims of the institution. As a result, it's an emotionally taxing account of slavery as a system that utilized the dehumanization and degradation of people for labor. It is, ultimately, a film that is not to be missed. A+