That, quite simply, is the formidable task that British director Steve McQueen has set for himself with his new film, the blistering 12 Years a Slave.
Even if the movie weren’t as good as it is, we’d need to thank him for trying; far too few filmmakers have had the courage or initiative to address head-on the darkest chapter of U.S. history.
As it happens, the film is stunningly good, thanks to McQueen’s unflinching, unsentimental approach and to impeccable casting, most crucially of the wonderfully expressive Chewitel Ejiofor as a man with a truly extraordinary – and extraordinarily true – story.
The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a black man who was born free in New York. In 1841, Northup, a skilled violinist, was lured to Washington, D.C., with the offer of work. Instead, his “employers” drugged him and sold him to a slave trader.
The title of the film gives away a key fact, but it’s hardly a spoiler. The crux of the movie is not whether, but how, Northup summoned the strength and the cunning to survive 12 years in the hell of Louisiana plantations.
Crucial early scenes depict a comfortable, happy life in Saratoga, N.Y., where Northup lived with his wife and two children. That all changes in one terrible moment, when he awakes in shackles, his wallet and papers gone, and realizes he has no way of proving who he is. He loses even his name.
Soon, Northup is on his way to Louisiana. Shock – his, and ours – deepens as he stands for inspection, surrounded by other slaves for sale, many naked, poked and prodded like cattle by their seller (a frighteningly banal Paul Giamatti) who has no problem separating a mother from her small children.
Later, as the mother – a moving Adepero Oduye – weeps, her new mistress consoles her: “Your children will soon be forgotten.”
Northup’s first owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is, in the scheme of things, a more sympathetic type, and he appreciates his new slave’s intelligence. He’s powerless to protect Northup from a sadistic overseer (Paul Dano, reliably chilling), though, and a confrontation Northup has with the overseer leads to one of the film’s most excruciating scenes – perhaps one of the most painful in any film about slavery. Hung from a tree, Northup is left to dangle for hours, teetering between life and death. His toes, which barely touch the ground, are his only hope.
All the while, plantation life continues in full view.
Northup survives, but only to be sent off to another owner, the monstrous Edwin Epps, who cites scripture as support for 150-lash whippings. Epps – mesmerizingly portrayed by Michael Fassbender, a McQueen regular – also has desires for a lovely young slave, Patsey, who has to endure not only his advances but the poisonous, violent jealousy of his wife (Sarah Paulson, also excellent.) A scene in which Patsey is subjected to Epps’ most crazed fury is so harrowing, you might need to close your eyes – but don’t.
The film truly belongs to Ejiofor, whose big, soulful eyes seem to register so many things at once: Shock, pain, grit, determination, abject despair at times, cautious hope at others – and always, dignity.