“12 Years a Slave” isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century. Written by John Ridley and directed by Steve McQueen, it tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African-American freeman who, in 1841, was snatched off the streets of Washington, and sold. It’s at once a familiar, utterly strange and deeply American story in which the period trappings long beloved by Hollywood — the paternalistic gentry with their pretty plantations, their genteel manners and all the fiddle-dee-dee rest — are the backdrop for an outrage. More About This Movie
The story opens with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) already enslaved and cutting sugar cane on a plantation. A series of flashbacks shifts the story to an earlier time, when Solomon, living in New York with his wife and children, accepts a job from a pair of white men to play the violin in a circus. Soon the three are enjoying a civilized night out in Washington, sealing their camaraderie with heaping plates of food, flowing wine and the unstated conviction — if only on Solomon’s part — of a shared humanity, a fiction that evaporates when he wakes the next morning shackled and discovers that he’s been sold. Thereafter, he is passed from master to master.
It’s a desperate path and a story that seizes you almost immediately with a visceral force. But Mr. McQueen keeps everything moving so fluidly and efficiently that you’re too busy worrying about Solomon, following him as he travels from auction house to plantation, to linger long in the emotions and ideas that the movie churns up. Part of this is pragmatic — Mr. McQueen wants to keep you in your seat, not force you out of the theater, sobbing — but there’s something else at work here. This is, he insists, a story about Solomon, who may represent an entire subjugated people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the American past and present. Yet this is also, emphatically, the story of one individual.
Unlike most of the enslaved people whose fate he shared for a dozen years, the real Northup was born into freedom. (His memoir’s telegraphing subtitle is “Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana.”) That made him an exceptional historical witness, because even while he was inside slavery — physically, psychologically, emotionally — part of him remained intellectually and culturally at a remove, which gives his book a powerful double perspective. In the North, he experienced some of the privileges of whiteness, and while he couldn’t vote, he could enjoy an outing with his family. Even so, he was still a black man in antebellum America.
Mr. McQueen is a British visual artist who made a rough transition to movie directing with his first two features, “Hunger” and “Shame,” both of which were embalmed in self-promoting visuals. “Hunger” is the sort of art film that makes a show of just how perfectly its protagonist, the Irish dissident Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), smears his excrement on a prison wall. “Shame,” about a sex addict (Mr. Fassbender again), was little more than glossy surfaces, canned misery and preening directorial virtuosity. For “12 Years a Slave,” by contrast, Mr. McQueen has largely dispensed with the conventions of art cinema to make something close to a classical narrative; in this movie, the emphasis isn’t on visual style