Extreme peril has been a focus of drama at least since the ancient Greeks, whether the protagonists brought the tragedy on themselves (Oedipus Rex) or were helpless victims (The Trojan Women). 2013
alone saw a bumper crop of films about people in anomalously perilous situations. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity concerned a science officer (Sandra Bullock) stranded in outer space after debris from a satellite destroyed her
space station. J.C. Chandor's All is Lost presented a yachtsman (Robert Redford) sailing solo around the world whose options dwindled rapidly after his boat's hull was punctured. Paul Greengrass' Captain Phillips was
based on the true story of the eponymous cargo ship captain (Tom Hanks) whose vessel was boarded by Somali pirates.
All three films are worth seeing, especially for their lead performances, and Gravity in particular sets new standards for excellence in special effects. Yet all three films—and most other movies released this year—seem utterly trivial compared with the year's best and most harrowing film, Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave.
With the possible exceptions of Fruitvale Station and The Butler, it is difficult even to compare 12 Years a Slave with any other recent film. Captain Phillips, Gravity's Ryan Stone, and the nameless mariner in All
is Lost faced ordeals to be sure, but those ordeals lasted only a few hours or days. Solomon Northup, the actual historical figure on whose memoirs 12 Years a Slave is based, lived the reality summed up in the four
bleak words of the title.
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free African-American living in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1841. A freelance carpenter and violinist, Northup lived in middle-class comfort with his wife and two
children. (Northup's daughter is played by Quvenzhane Wallis, who made a spectacular debut in 2012 in Beasts of the Southern Wild.)
One day, while his wife and children were away, Northup received a job offer from two white men to provide the music for a traveling circus. The men invited Northup to Washington, D.C., to discuss
details. During a celebratory dinner, Northup suddenly felt dizzy, and was taken to bed. The next thing he knew, he was lying on the cold stone floor of a cell in a slave warehouse, chained hand and foot.
The way McQueen stages this scene, the camera rising above Northup's cries for help to the rooftops of a cold and indifferent city, is worthy of Hitchcock. However, 12 Years a Slave quickly blows past any Hitchcock
thriller, into a reality that beggars description except to record the hard, brutal facts.
Transported in chains to New Orleans, Northup is renamed Platt by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) who promptly offers him up for sale. The scenes of
degradation in the slave market, in which men, women and children are treated as livestock, are hideous beyond belief, yet only a prelude for the horrors to come.
Northup's first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a relatively decent and enlightened man, but still very much a slavemaster.
This is made resoundingly clear by the fate of Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a woman sold to Ford at the same time as Northup. Eliza has been separated from her children, and Mrs. Ford finds Eliza's constant grief annoying. The
last we see of Eliza, she is being hauled away by two very rough-looking men.
Meanwhile, Northup gets into a world of trouble on his own, in a dispute with Ford's chief carpenter, a lamebrained racist named John Tibeats (Paul
Dano). Although some critics have described what happens to Northup here, I will not; the sheer horror of it needs to hit you in the face, as it did
Northup. In any case, the situation between Northup and Tibeats makes it necessary for Ford to sell Northup to a neighboring plantation owner, just to save Northup's life.
And here Northup's trouble truly begins, for his new master is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). An unstable, alcoholic sadist, Epps shouts Bible
verses as authority to beat his slaves. Epps sets a quota for his slaves to pick 200 pounds of cotton a day, the whip being the penalty for not meeting the quota.
Yet meeting the quota isn't enough to escape the lash. If Eliza hasn't given us the message already, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) is living proof that being
an enslaved woman is the worst conceivable fate. Patsey is smart, beautiful, hardworking (regularly picking 500 pounds or more of cotton a day), and
creative. For this, Epps and his equally crazed wife (Sarah Paulson) single her out for torture and abuse. In the world of hothouse delusions they inhabit, Epps imagines Patsey to be his mistress, and Mrs. Epps imagines
her to be her rival. What Patsey really is, of course, is a helpless pawn at the complete mercy of two merciless monsters. There is a scene in which
Patsey begs a favor of Northup; that favor—which Northup refuses—sums up the horrific hopelessness of Patsey's life. Yet even that scene pales in comparison to what happens when Epps catches Patsey coming back from
going AWOL to a neighboring plantation.
That neighboring plantation is run by Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard), the black mistress of a white widower who gives her all the rights and privileges
of a wife. Harriet uses her power to help the slaves onsite and nearby, yet she is bitterly aware that her privileged life will end the moment her master dies or tires of her.
Meanwhile, Northup never ends his attempts to regain his freedom. But each one fails in turn, each failure more heartbreaking than the last. The
structure of slavery is all-pervasive and literally murderous, to the point that even a white abolitionist such as Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) is terrified to lift a finger to help Northup.
It is ridiculously obvious to state that 12 Years a Slave is difficult to watch. Yet more than one critic has pointed out that, if McQueen and screenwriter
John Ridley had really been faithful to Northup's book, the movie would have been impossible to watch. They included just enough incidents from the book to make plain the horror of Northup's plight. One of the most
unsettling scenes in the film is one in which McQueen holds Northup in closeup for two or three minutes, a look of utter, helpless despair on his face. For several seconds he stares straight into the camera; that scene
makes you flinch like nothing else in the film.
That, of course, is testimony to the greatness of Chiwetel Ejiofor's performance. An Englishman of Nigerian parentage, Ejiofor is a star in
Britain and has hovered on the brink of international stardom for years, appearing in films as varied as Dirty Pretty Things, Inside Man, Children of Men, Serenity, and Kinky Boots. His Northup is a star-making
performance with a vengeance. The same can be said of Michael Fassbender's Epps and Lupita Nyong'o's Patsey, but all the actors are outstanding, straight down the line.
12 Years a Slave flouts Hollywood tradition in many ways, but in one way in particular: There is no closure or catharsis at the end, just as there was
none in Northup's own life. He is reunited with his family, but he lost 12 years of his life for no reason, and the end titles briefly relate the sad facts of the remainder of Northup's life. Meanwhile, Patsey and many
thousands of others remain enslaved.
12 Years a Slave reminds me somewhat of Fateless, Lajos Koltai's 2005 movie based on Imre Kertesz's novel about a Hungarian Holocaust
survivor. Gyorgy Koves (Marcell Nagy), the teenage protagonist of Fateless, is captured in a random SS roundup and sent to various camps where he is
tortured and starved almost to death. He is liberated by the Americans and goes home to Budapest, where his surviving neighbors are less than happy
to see him. All Gyorgy can do is go on with his life, as best he can. But Fateless is still less bleak at its end than 12 Years a Slave; Gyorgy's
sufferings lasted only one year, and the Nazi insanity that caused them was vanquished at the end. At the end of 12 Years a Slave, the slave system still
had years to go. Jim Crow and the Ku Klux Klan ensured it would continue in practice after it was abolished in name.
There are some films that emphatically contradict the candy-colored fantasies that comprise most of our cinematic entertainment. 12 Years a Slave is one of these, and it must be ranked as one of the most important
films of the past decade. It reminds us all too well of a quote attributed to Gandhi: Reportedly asked what he thought of Western civilization, the Mahatma answered, "I think it would be an excellent idea."