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. Viewers will likely leave this film accustomed to looking at Chiwetel Ejiofor through a wash of tears.
Throughout 12 Years are scenes of such barbarity, brought to life by actors talented enough to tap every nuance of that barbarity, that at times I had to look away. I don't know if the ratcheting up of intensity to face-covering levels was deliberate, but it feels just. After all, the characters are being ripped from their families, exported for profit, and forced to work in torturous conditions for free.
If there's a gripe to be made about the merits of McQueen's film, it concerns the story's villains, a good number of whom speed past banal evil to superhuman monsterism. The worst of the slavers aren't just humans capable of treating other humans as property—they're psychopaths who get off on treating their property like shit. The idea that some slavers might be garbage rat people incapable of decency isn't hard to accept or justify, but to amp the psycho-villainy up to Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet levels threatens to let viewers off the hook, suggesting that the US slave trade was the work of evil monsters, instead of an entirely human endeavor.
Still, beyond the psychomonsters (brought to terrifying life by Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulsen), McQueen packs his film with so much identifiable humanity you'll leave sore. Watching 12 Years is a grueling experience, and the artistry of the filmmakers and actors is a generous, pain-diminishing life raft.