The problem with 12 Years a Slave is that it is very, very good—and because it is very, very good, it is extraordinarily difficult to watch. So much so, in fact, that I assumed the movie was a more graphic version of the 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a free black man who, in 1841, was kidnapped in Washington and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Then I read Northup’s book. It offers a portrait of slave life far more brutal and grinding and unimaginably dehumanizing than the movie’s.
If we were to see on screen what Northup put on the page, the film would be unendurable. This makes the achievement of screenwriter John Ridley and director Steve McQueen even more impressive. They remain entirely faithful to Northup’s story, as is proper when attempting to do justice to an important historical account. But they must have recognized they had no choice but to tell it in such a way that a moviegoer who has not been strapped into a seat and had his eyes forced open like Alex’s in A Clockwork Orange could continue to watch it. And they don’t fall prey to the aesthetic temptation to linger over some act of violence out of a manipulative hunger to wring raw emotion from us.
In avoiding that temptation, as Stanley Kubrick could not in his aestheticization of ultraviolence in A Clockwork Orange, Ridley and McQueen have made a work about the monstrousness of dehumanization rather than a celebration of it.
We follow Northup, a 31-year-old man whose wife and children have traveled away from their Saratoga home for a few weeks. He is gulled into journeying to Washington by two con men who offer him a job playing violin in a circus. They spike his wine, and hours later, he finds himself in chains in a slave pen near the Capitol. When he angrily protests his free status, a slaver beats him mercilessly with a paddle. The shock, outrage, bewilderment, doomedness, and agony that cross the face of the British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor as he howls and weeps create an almost unbearably intimate bond between the character and the audience. It’s an astonishing performance here and everywhere.
Northup meets other slaves, including a woman named Eliza, whose two children are torn from her and sold to others in a scene for which the word “wrenching” could have been invented (though again, in the book’s telling, the event is far more awful). Northup becomes the “property” of an outwardly decent plantation owner named Ford, who shows him surprising respect; this angers one of Ford’s foremen, whose acts of hostility set Northup off. He beats the foreman. As punishment, with Ford away from the plantation, Northup is left to hang from a noose just an inch off the ground for a day, only saving himself from strangulation by slight and constant movements of his feet.
After this unspeakable torment, to save his life, Ford sells him to a drunken psychopath named Epps (played by the incredibly intense Michael Fassbender), who is obsessed with a female slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). His psychosexual attentions to her enrage his wife, who thinks nothing of smashing Patsey’s head with a decanter and gouging her nails into Patsey’s face. The girl begs Solomon to kill her and thereby release her from the life she does not have the strength to end herself. He refuses, fearing for his own immortal soul, but what then happens to Patsey gives him cause to regret his refusal.
The hush that comes over the audience as the movie ends, and the fact that the audience (at my showing and at others I have read about) tends to remain stunned and unmoving as the final credits roll testifies to the film’s undeniable power. Doing justice to the story of Solomon Northup makes it impossible for 12 Years a Slave to be anything but a take-your-medicine movie, the sort of picture one sees out of duty rather than in the expectation of gaining any pleasure from it. That is a mark of its integrity.
At a remove of 161 years from the liberation of Solomon Northup, in a nation whose president is a black man twice elected by record numbers of American voters, 12 Years a Slave tells a remarkable story about this country’s monstrous original stain. It is, therefore, nothing short of disgusting that liberal bloggers have taken it upon themselves in recent weeks to use the movie to castigate conservatives for failing to see 12 Years a Slave as a call to action against present-day American racism.
To compare the difficulties an African American faces today to the inhuman evils that afflicted Solomon Northup, as some do to score a cheap political point while patting themselves on the back for their compassion, is to make a disgraceful cartoon of that man’s intolerable suffering and of all those to whose wretchedness he bore witness.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.