A man is lured by the promise of something great. He is drugged and wakes up shackled. His previous life - one of privilege and freedom - is gone. He is tortured, physically and emotionally, again and again. This could be a sequel to an Eli Roth horror story of frat boys promised sex at a Czech hostel, but it's not. It's the painfully real story of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who takes a job as a fiddler from two untrustworthy men. As a result, he is sold into slavery in 1841, renamed Platt, and held captive for over a decade.
"I'm not making a horror film," director told Academy members at a 20th Century Fox luncheon earlier this year. "I have to in some ways show the perversity in life. That is how it is. One has to show that as it is. I have to embrace the horror of it, just as much as the beauty of things."
While this quote was prompted by some critics' reactions of the film's physical allure - lush, careful compositions of plantations in the Deep South - the true elegance comes from McQueen's ability to capture pure emotions that stretch from the darkest depths of despair, from the slaves to the slave owners, to the initial moment of Solomon's healing process.
"I've had a difficult time these last several years," Solomon () tells his family when they are finally reunited. He blames himself for stripping his children of their father and "abandoning" his wife. It's heartbreaking, one of the most accurate depictions of how one would perceive their own abuse, and one of the most beautiful scenes I've seen in a long time. More importantly, it reiterates that his heart's wounds - created through literal, bloody sores and the psychological terror of survival - can finally be filled with the light of his family's embrace.
That's not a luxury awarded to the film's slave owners, particularly Epps (). His relationship with himself and humanity in general shows a complete failure of dealing with the demons that eat away at him. On the surface, he tries to alleviate this sadness with drinks and forcing himself onto his favorite slave, Patsey (an indescribable ), but the monsters within him are fed the same way. That's especially true when his his jealous wife, Mary (), exacerbates his problems by forcing him to abuse Patsey. He passes the responsibility to Northrup, until his rage takes over. The power dynamics at play - within the slave society and within Epps' own relationships - are staggering to watch.
However, some of the most overwhelming examples of societal sadness are the subtle ones that make the film so immersive and transportive. While Northrup was inducted into this alien world as a free man, there are others who have obviously been born into it. Northrup has to suffer only 12 years, the reality of his temporary situation is what plagues others for a lifetime. Some beg for death, others remain silent, most simply look sad. There's an acceptance that life can't be any different - whether men are hanging from trees and slaves go about their business, when rapes occur, to even questioning whether slaves are human or not.
Even though I can't imagine scars as deep as Solomon's ever healing completely, there's a sense of his place as an American hero through this film and how it's reintroduced Northrup's own 1853 memoir into the cultural consciousness after it was overshadowed by the likes of Uncle Tom's Cabin that came out the year before. Northrup's story - as it's told in this film and the discovery of his abolitionist activism has been enlightening.
As enlightening is the gnawing annoyance that this film was made due to producer 's involvement. I'm thankful that his celebrity helped tell this story, but it also should have Hollywood staring in the mirror.
12 Years a Slave is my favorite movie of 2013.