There's so much depth and beauty in "Twelve Years a Slave." By the end of the film when you have used up umpteen sheets of Kleenex, it's not only due to the glorious retelling of Solomon Northup's memoir from screenwriter John Ridley, but because this is one of the first movies to come along in a while that actually presents a slave tale told in truth, giving its victims multi-dimensional identities.
So many times, historical movies have a way of creating distance, but Steve McQueen's engrossing direction creates an immersive experience that doesn't rely on violence to elicit a response (although he doesn't skimp on brutal whippings), but, instead, has a knack for pushing his audience to get inside the character's heads and their hearts (even those that don't seem to have one).
A good film needs a great foundation. Perhaps this close bond between actors, director, writer and audience is due to Northup himself. Northup's documentation of his plight in an 1853 memoir helps solidify the true slice of life rather than a by-the-book, slave-tale depiction. Northup was a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped into slavery in 1841 and won his freedom 12 years later. This real recount affords details that otherwise may not have been so vividly narrated. This is where Ridley and McQueen excel at taking Northup's observations and preserving them rather than glossing over details that might make it more accessible. McQueen also stayed away from casting recognizable names (Brad Pitt has a small role but he helped to produce the film -- "If I'm going to produce it, I'm going to have a small part in it!" And Michael Fassbender -- hardly a household name -- is cast as a cold-hearted plantation owner. Paul Giamatti has a small part as a ruthless slave trader.)
Casting Northup's character must have been a difficult chore, but McQueen found his actor in Chiwetel Ejiofor (both McQueen and Ejiofor are British). Ejiofor made his big-screen debut playing a small part in "Amistad," a 1997 film directed by Steven Spielberg about a mutiny on a slave ship. There's already buzz for Ejiofor to take home a Best Actor Oscar. His characterization of Northup has so many emotional twists and turns -- even without speaking a word, the actor brings a constant tension to the slave's harrowing journey.
Lupita Nyong'o, in her first film role, as Patsey, a young woman whose character seems to depict all of the atrocities that enslaved women, approaches the role with a reserved control. It is this choice of quiet suffering that is most effective in evoking empathetic, sorrowful rage. At one point, as she creates small cornhusks dolls in a field, Nyong'o shows the innocence of Patsey, enjoying a moment alone away from a sadistic plantation master and his jealous wife, Mary (wonderfully portrayed by Sarah Paulson). It is yet another picturesque and precious jewel of direction from McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, who has collaborated with McQueen for more than a decade.
McQueen is one of those directors who doesn't rush a moment. One of the most impactful scenes is of a hanging where McQueen creates the essence of drama without a bit of dialogue. A man hangs from a noose, his feet barely touching the muddy ground below him. He swings as the rope tightens around his neck. Time passes. Children play. People go about their chores. It's another day.
This is what makes "12 Years a Slave" an epic masterpiece. Bring on the well-deserved Best Picture Oscar.