It is a difficult experience to encapsulate. My poor wife could only stay 40 minutes before she had to leave.
It is easy to fall back on talking about craft. So, I'll start there. This is a very, very well made movie. The director, Steve McQueen (I know), does not force the pace of the story. Scenes unfold slowly, recreating the pace of 19th century life and the interminable, permanent nature of slavery. There is a devastating scene of Solomon staring into the distance, staring into the camera and then off into the distance again. That's it. But it plays out over about 90 seconds (an eternity on film) and leaves you feeling helpless in the face of his despair.
Chiwetel Ejiofar has always been a tremendous film actor that no one knows about. His performance has a gravity that makes the entire film work. When a bona fide movie star (and the film's producer) shows up in Brad Pitt, he seems a faded, pale thing next to Ejiofor's Solomon.
This is the American Schindler's List.
That movie is obviously hard to watch, and so is 12 Years, because they both are grounded in an historical reality that reveals the brutishness possible in human behavior. Where 12 Years varies from Schindler's List is in the choices made by the director and writer.
Spielberg, being Spielberg, gives a faint glimmer of hope to Oskar Schindler. In the face of incomprehensible horror, Schindler risks his life and expends his fortune to save people's lives. So while the movie soaks in the blood and ash of the Holocaust, it ultimately redeems humanity in the form of a flawed man who embraces the good in him.
McQueen does not give us that respite. He does not end with the Emancipation Proclamation, Appomattox or the passage of the 13th Amendment. Spielberg would have, or he would have shown us Solomon Northup's current descendants. McQueen gives us as happy an ending as possible, but one so melancholy and fraught with loss that it only seems happy in compared with the extended, grinding misery of the preceding two hours.
I read someone wondering if an American could have made this film. Probably. But an American could not have played slave owner Edwin Epps. Ironically, the actor - Michael Fassbender - was born in Germany. He embraces the sadism and debauchery of Epps in a way that is both artistically brave and makes you worry how you come back from playing a role like that. If we make the obvious comparison to Ralph Fiennes' Amon Goeth in Schindler's List, what we see in Epps is more human than the cold, emotionless Goeth and therefore oddly more terrifying. With Goeth there was a logic in random violence, it was used for control. With Epps, the violence is unpredictable and mercurial, a product of his own delusions and emotional imbalance.
Epps is the personification of American sin. He is the slaveholder from hell. The movie does not engage in polemics: it does show a kindly slave owner in Benedict Cumberbatch's Ford. There is another slave owner - Master Shaw - whose plantation seems an idyll compared to Epps'.
But it is precisely this relative compassion that shows the horror and waste of slavery. When Solomon works for Ford, he uses his intelligence and experience to increase the efficiency and yield of Ford's lumber business. Ford is impressed, but his overseer - a dim and vicious Paul Dano - is threatened. Since slavery depends on the idea of white supremacy, Solomon's intelligence and ability are a threat to the one thing that makes Dano's overseer's life palatable: his racial superiority. Slavery requires that blacks be brutes. Any glimmer of humanity must be crushed. Solomon's decision to be exceptional directly leads to his chastisement, debasement and torture. From there on out, he has to hide his abilities.
Before the Civil War, roughly a third of the Southern population were enslaved blacks, in the cotton belt is was closer to 50%. That population was kept ignorant and any effort to express their humanity beyond the infantile, the sexual or the musical was crushed.
That is the crime of slavery that the film hammers home. There is a scene where slaves are being auctioned that shows how they were reduced to livestock, which was pretty much their legal status. For all the beneficence of a master like Ford, the system itself was degrading. And as the Epps character shows, that degradation happened to whites as well as blacks. The scenes of sexual predation and the destruction of families are sickening.
There is no let up in this movie. Like slavery itself, it is "All night, all night forever". The decision not to leaven the movie with humor or love makes it hard to watch. I'm not sure I took a full, deep breath during the last hour of the movie. And when I did at the very end, it was mixed with trembling sobs.
Spielberg's historical epics have been derisively called "broccoli movies" - they are good for you, but bland. I'm not sure what to call 12 Years A Slave. It is a harsh, harsh medicine - a purgative perhaps - not even as enjoyable as eating your broccoli.
But it's an essential experience. It has to be seen. But sadly, it has to be seen especially by those who will never see it. This is a horror movie where the monsters are the great-great grandfathers of audience members. That central fact flies in the face of the lies we tell ourselves about our country's past.
If the truth sets Solomon free in the end, then we must embrace that truth about ourselves and our history to free ourselves, too.