The year is 1841. Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free man, living in Saratoga, New York with his wife, Anne (Kelsey Scott), and two kids (Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler). Solomon is a well-liked member of his community. Anne is leaving with the children to go on a yearly trip for work.
While Anne and the children are away, Solomon is approached by two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) who promise to pay him for every day he works for them, playing violin in their circus-type extravaganza. After traveling to Washington, the two men take Solomon out for dinner and drinks to celebrate their new venture.
When Solomon wakes the next morning, he finds himself in chains, preparing to be sent to the south, to be sold as a slave. Solomon protests, declaring that he is a free man. He says that if the men holding him can find the two men who brought him to Washington, they can clear up the confusion. The men holding him refuse to listen to his pleas. Instead, they beat him mercilessly, telling him he is a runaway slave from Georgia. He, along with the other men, and a woman with her two children, are taken to a riverboat and sent to New Orleans to be sold.
Solomon, renamed Platt by the man about to sell them (Paul Giamatti). He is advised to keep his real identity hidden to survive. A plantation owner by the name of Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) buys Solomon and takes him to work for him. As slave owners go, Ford is a relatively sympathetic one.
Solomon’s abilities earn him favor with Ford. This angers Ford’s head carpenter, Tibeats (Paul Dano). After Tibeats attempts to lynch Solomon, Ford must sell him to another plantation owner, Epps (Michael Fassbender), as Ford can no longer guarantee his safety.
Epps has a reputation for “breaking” slaves such as Solomon. He does not take as kindly to Solomon as Ford does. The only slave Epps has any liking for is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). He is a jealous man who does not appreciate any one else, including neighboring plantation owners showing his favorite slave any attention.
Solomon has resigned himself to being Platt, for the sole purpose of surviving this ordeal. He gives himself up only as much as he must to not fall victim to the slave owners he must endure. All the while, he hopes to find some way, any way, to get word back to his family and be rescued from this dire situation.
12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup. It is a powerful, heart-breaking story. The film’s director, Steve McQueen, does an amazing job of bringing this story to life. Not all the credit goes to McQueen, however.
Chiwetel Ejiofor is simply incredible. I haven’t seen any of his previous work, which I realize now is a shame. He is a truly gifted actor. He is able to convey so much pain and emotion, without even uttering a word. It is no surprise that he is up for an Oscar for this role. I would honestly be surprised if he does not win.
This isn’t to discount the rest of the cast. Lupita Nyong’o gives as strong a performance as Chiwetel, even if she isn’t as featured. Paul Dano is as creepy and demented as ever. Does Paul Giamatti ever play a good guy? Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender are not to be excluded, either. All are to be commended for their ability to play such vile roles.
The movie is painful and difficult to watch. Not because of the writing or execution. Both are almost flawless. It is the story itself that makes it so hard to watch. The fact that this is a true story and these types of activities were such commonplace.
If you don’t walk away from this movie feeling affected, I don’t know what will impact you.