It can be hard to see the tree for the forest when it comes to films about culturally loaded topics, none more so than American slavery. It's useful to keep in mind that 12 Years a Slave is the story of a man: another tale of physical and emotional survival that, unlike All is Lost and Gravity, derives from a true story.
The man is Solomon Northup, who endured the titular torture before penning his autobiography of the same name (as told to white lawyer David Wilson). Director Steve McQueen's cinematic adaptation, scripted by John Ridley, begins in 1841, where free Saratoga, NY resident Northup (Ejiofor), a husband and father, entertains an offer to play the violin on tour with a circus. The offer turns out to be a ruse, and Northup is kidnapped, transported by a domestic slave ship to New Orleans, and sold into slavery.
As such, and above all, 12 Years a Slave explores one man's terrifying realization of the fragility of his existence and, accordingly, his sense of self. His initial captors attempt to break him, reassigning him the identity of an illiterate runaway slave; Northup learns to maintain, outwardly, a wary acquiescence on this point, but in his mind, he fiercely clings to his self-knowedge of life as an educated, free family man and artist.
Solomon's mental torture—of being robbed of nearly everything but his heartbeat—transcends physical torments and fosters a potent, gut-level emotional experience for the audience. The strong suit of 12 Years a Slave isn't intellectual, but its evocation of terrible feeling. As far as the institution of slavery, the film cracks into that chestnut of holocaust movies: the widespread moral implication of both victimizers and survivalist victims. Northup's first owner, Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), comes described as "a decent man...under the circumstances," who pleads economic necessity as his excuse for holding Solomon. Matters devolve further when Northup is sold off to plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who takes out his miseries—in a maelstrom of physical and sexual abuse—on his slaves, including the death-wishing Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, making a striking debut).
McQueen effectively employs two key visual motifs. The first is of blithe or fearful bystanders (white and black) who avert their eyes or their morality in order to keep putting one foot in front of the other. In the narrative's signature episode of torture, Solomon dangles from a noose, hanging on to choked breaths by tiptoe on muddy ground. As he does, his fellow slaves pass behind him, understandably unwilling to intervene; similar willful ignorance attends rape, family separation and human trafficking. The second visual motif is Ejiofor's face, a tuning fork of intellect and emotion. McQueen knows which side the film's bread is buttered on, and he often plants his camera squarely at Ejiofor and lets him just be Solomon in what passes for repose: contemplating, hoping, losing hope, finding understanding. The actor doesn't miss a beat.
One wonders if 12 Years a Slave will herald a new trend of prestige slavery pictures to rival the international bull market for holocaust films. Beyond a certain point, "tasteful" films about horrific historical events exhaust their usefulness and begin to look like gauche exploitation. But 12 Years a Slave works land that has thus far commonly been left fallow. Though it mildly (and needlessly) distorts a few minor elements of Northup's narrative, and a late-picture supporting turn by producer Brad Pitt distracts (rightly or wrongly, it comes off as self-righteous self-casting, allowing the star to be the film's moral exemplar), the film succeeds by simply, plainly placing audiences in the emotional crucible of pre-abolition America and firing their imaginations.