Steve McQueen's 12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013) is exactly what it set out to be, a story about Solomon Burke (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who experienced slavery although he was born a free man. There is nothing entertaining about slavery itself, no uplift in the condition of slavery, no escape from the encumbrance of slavery, so the challenge for an ambitious filmmaker like McQueen is to show us the before and the after of slavery in order to illuminate the tragedy of slavery. As provocative as 12 YEARS A SLAVE is, it fails to meet this standard: Solomon's life before slavery is dull, Solomon's life after slavery is muted. This is the result of a conscious choice by McQueen and his screenwriter John Ridgley.
Solomon was shuffled to eight different plantations during those 12 years, but the movie only shows us three, so we in the audience have plenty of time to wonder why he never figured out how to escape on his own back to his family. This simplification of Solomon's circumstances undercuts what could have been the message of this picture: that Solomon was treated like cheap goods and was never able to get his bearings or distinguish himself from the hundreds of slaves which he was packed together with.
There are moments in 12 YEARS A SLAVE that work wonderfully. When slave trader Paul Giamatti barely notices Solomon even though he is playing violin while Giamatti briskly sells him to slave owner Benedict Cumberland. When Cumberland sells Solomon because he doesn't care that Solomon was tricked into slavery and cannot protect Solomon from one of his foremen. When Solomon considers running away but comes across a lynching from another plantation while he was trying to escape. Solomon is always sympathetic, yes, but he is rarely heroic. If slavery is indeed the damning failure of a civilized society, then perhaps Solomon cannot be blamed for going along to get along. But there are multiple scenes that don't ring as true, that either require the actors to say things that sound prepared, to do things that feel forced, or to do nothing when any normal human being would have done something/anything. Slavery is not the seventh circle of hell, or the culmination of man's inhumanity of man. Slavery is the business of doing business based on the color of someone's skin, the codification of racism, the legalization of sexism, the justification of paedophilia. By eliminating the majority of the eight plantations, the film severely limits its options. This numerical elimination weakens its argument and works against its entertainment value.
We get tired of Solomon's predicament, which is the last thing that the film intends. Then, just when the film has almost made us lose all sympathy for Solomon's situation, it delivers someone whom Solomon himself can unselfishly feel sympathy for. Patsey (Lupita Nyong'O) is the best picker of cotton on wild-eyed Michael Fassbender's plantation and a thorn in his side to his marriage to strait-laced Sarah Paulson. Nyong'O is a bolt of lightning and clap of thunder to this movie. Patsey does not experience anything that Solomon himself has not gone through on screen, mostly, but where for Solomon it had been mostly academic, for Patsey each degradation is soul-crushing. Nyong'O has the alert eyes of a young Sidney Poitier, the catlike grace of a young Audrey Hepburn, the physical assurance of a young Katherine Hepburn.
Because Patsey is unschooled, unassuming and completely vulnerable: she is the victim of the circumstances of her slavery and she has no way of escaping it. When Solomon leaves her to her own devices at the Fassbender plantation, the film effectively has nowhere to go, we no longer care about Solomon because he does not care enough about Patsey. Patsey has taken over the film, not by the blood whipped out of her back, but by the beads of sweat produced by her so-called life on Fassbender's plantation: she is going to die a horrible death in an unmarked grave, simply because she is a slave.
Nyong'O is exactly what the film needs just when the film is becoming a chore, but she is more than that: hers is the performance that resonates and elevates the movie into the indictment against slavery that it had aspired to be. Born in 1983 and raised in Kenya, this is the first major performance by Lupita Nyong'O, and she will never have a better role than Patsey. This is comparable to Nick Nolte in RICH MAN, POOR MAN, Audrey Hepburn in ROMAN HOLIDAY, Renee Zelwegger in JERRY MAGUIRE, Sean Penn in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH, John Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE, Jack Nicholson in EASY RIDER and Bill Murray in MEATBALLS: the supporting part that should have been forgettable but instead becomes a classic.