Heading in to the cinema to watch 12 Years a Slave, I felt a level of trepidation that called up images of the marches Germans made through Nazi death camps after the war, as ordinary citizens were forced to behold the evil they allowed to flourish in their homeland. Distress on the part of the viewer was the point, but also beside the point: The pain experienced by after-the-fact witnesses is so far removed from the horror being witnessed that it effectively counts as privilege.

That said, watching a film by Steve McQueen cannot be compared to marching through the remains of a death camp. This is a man who makes beautiful things. As a Turner Prize–winning video artist and Cannes-honored filmmaker, McQueen brings a highly accomplished visual aesthetic to this brutal true tale, the facts of which come from the 1853 autobiography of Solomon Northup. Northup was a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, with his wife and children when, in 1841, he was kidnapped, transported south, sold to the highest bidder, and subjected to a barbaric 12-year enslavement.

In the film, Northup is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, the highly accomplished British actor who does extraordinary work here. As McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley take us through each step of this nightmare—where the crossing of a state line legally turns a man into property—Ejiofor anchors the film with a performance that can feel mythic, until it breaks apart into something a hundred times messier and more complicated. Peppered among the scenes of hideous inhumanity are long, close shots of Ejiofor's face, maybe three such shots in all, each of which sends an intense blast of humanity into the ever-accumulating horror.

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