Solomon Northup was a free born black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1841. Known as a talented violin player he was approached that year by two men who identified themselves as entertainers with an offer to accompany them for several performances in New York City. He took the job and thinking it would be a short trip didn’t tell his wife. Once there they convinced him to continue with them to Washington, D.C.
Once in Washington Northup was drugged, stripped of his clothing and identification, and sold into slavery. After 12 years he was freed again and later published a memoir of his experiences. Now Steve McQueen has made a movie out of those memoirs.
It’s a movie you need to see.
Slavery is something that American would probably prefer be forgotten. It’s difficult to even really think about these days because none of it makes any real sense. The distinctions between the races and classes are so narrow and arbitrary that they seem, well, fucking crazy to me. And yet that was the world that Solomon Northup lived in and that is what this movie is here to remind us. That casual brutality and disregard for simple human dignity was pretty much par for the course in the not too distant past.
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as solomon Northup and it’s the type of movie that the lead performance is make or break. Luckily Ejiofor is a great actor and his performance here is astounding. He runs through basically every emotion here and the characters real strength comes from his ability to not resist what’s happening even when he feels he should.
See, Solomon can’t tell anyone who he is because anyone who he could tell who might be able to help would be more likely to kill him for speaking out. He couldn’t tell anyone that he was educated either because anyone he told would be likely to kill him for being educated and be in danger for knowing of an educated slave. He couldn’t even tell anyone his real name for… well, you get the point here. He was trapped and we as the audience are trapped with him.
Over the course of the story Solomon is kidnapped and beaten, shipped to New Orleans, sold to Benedict Cumberbatch and later to Michael Fassbender.
Paul Giamatti’s role is brief but pivotal, highlighting again how little the residents of the south cared for the slaves they bought, sold, and owned and Paul Giamatti owns the screen for the few minutes we spend with him. Benedict Cumberbatch is lovely as a plantation owner who seems like a decent and sympathetic man right up until you remember he’s keeping slaves.
The real villains come in the form of Paul Dano, the young man who seems to have locked up the “creepy role” market, and Michael Fassbender. Both characters are cruel and psychopathic, and while Dano is the coward taking out his frustrations on slaves Fassbender is the exemplar of a slave owner at the time, whipping the slaves if they don’t complete enough of their work and generally abusing them. Further his affections for one of the female slaves causes his wife (played by Sarah Paulson) to become vindictive as well.
Brad Pitt shows up towards the end as a wandering Canadian carpenter and as a producer he gets to be the one who says point blank “this whole deal is wrong.” He’s fine, but when you’ve just spend most of a movie watching Ejiofor, Fassbender, Dano, Cumberbatch, and Giamatti turn in fantastic performances it’s a bit jarring to see Pitt just be there as his normal Brad Pitt self.
Steve McQueen has only made a three pictures so far and this is the most ambitious of them to date. He has a particular style: his films are quiet and slow and emphase show-don’t-tell filmmaking which not only do I happen to love but is also very effective, particularly in scenes of brutality or emotional upheaval which this film is chock full of.
Make no mistake here though: it’s Ejiofor who carries the picture. I’ll be surprised if he isn’t nominated for all the awards this coming year, along with Fassbender for supporting awards and the film itself as best picture.
Basically you need to go see it.