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Movies

Movie review

‘12 Years a Slave’ shows a free man taken into bondage

“12 Years a Slave” isn’t the story of an American tragedy. It’s the story of the American tragedy: slavery, this country’s original sin. How do you create a land of the free with a portion of its people in chains? How do you live with the cruelty of that paradox, then and now? Denial, mostly, or keeping it safely labeled in a box called The Past. Looking away, not bringing it up, visiting the dark topic only in the context of museums and history books.

Director Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) and screenwriter John Ridley (“Three Kings”) say to hell with that. They want us to feel in our stunned minds and bones what it is to have humanity, dignity, name stripped away, to become property, to live at the sufferance of men who consider you dispensable at best and fit for torture at worst. Other movies and books have gone here, but few so far and with such unyielding clarity of purpose. “12 Years a Slave” is to the “peculiar institution” what “Schindler’s List” was to the Holocaust: a work that, finally, asks a mainstream audience to confront the worst of what humanity can do to itself. If there’s no Oskar Schindler here, that’s partly the point.

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The film is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (played by the fine British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from Saratoga, N.Y., who was kidnapped in 1841 by slave traders, shipped to Louisiana, and who endured more than a decade of forced labor, beatings, and worse before being rescued and returned to his wife and children in the North. The 1853 memoir from which this movie takes its title demands with cold, articulate fury to be heard.

McQueen and Ridley establish Northup’s life before he was kidnapped as an unacknowledged Eden of equality, where Northup, born free in 1808, plies his trade as a fiddler in relative comfort and on friendly footing with the whites of Saratoga. Lured to Washington, D.C., by a pair of traveling entertainers (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) offering a profitable few weeks of work, Northup is drugged and awakens to find himself chained in a cell. Protesting, he’s beaten with a club until it breaks across his back. In one of the film’s most scalding early moments, McQueen’s camera pulls up from the window of the cell to the Capitol dome in the distance, its ideals of freedom mocking his new station.

Northup is passed on to a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), given a new name — Platt — and shipped to New Orleans, where he’s sold at an auction with other kidnapped blacks, all of them stripped naked in the living room of an elegant antebellum mansion. The trader makes his pitch, separating children from their mother, promising that one young man will “grow into a fine beast.” Northup is bought for $1,000 by a man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and taken to his plantation in central Louisiana.

Ford is educated, rational, kind — a “good” slave owner — and initially Northup chooses the route of accommodation, offering tips on engineering and waterway transport to Ford. This earns him the wrath of the overseer (Paul Dano), who seethes at the idea of a black man smarter than he. The point of “12 Years a Slave” isn’t what slavery did to this one man, Solomon Northup, but what it does to all men, and in what may be the film’s most awful single image, we see the hero strung from a low branch for his troubles, his toes slipping in mud as he struggles for breath. Behind him the sleepy life of the plantation continues on, other slaves walking back and forth, the owner’s brittle wife (Liza J. Bennett) watching blank-eyed from the porch. Later, when Northup tries to tell Ford who he is, the white man covers his ears in civilized agony.

When the troublemaking “Platt” is sold to another plantation owner, Epps (Michael Fassbender), “12 Years a Slave” truly enters the circles of Hell. We’re in the realm of cultural psychosis now, of men who prey on other men because they’re allowed to. Epps is a drinker and a religious fanatic who beats his slaves for his own sins of lust and wrath; Fassbender plays him with a self-loathing glee that seems too showy until you read passages like the following in Northup’s memoirs: “When ‘in his Cups,’ Master Epps was a roystering, blustering, noisy fellow, whose chief delight was in dancing with his ‘niggers,’ or lashing them about the yard with his long whip, just for the pleasure of hearing them screech and scream, as the great welts were planted on their backs.”

Here is where the movie comes to its terrible point: how a system that considers men beasts inevitably turns them into beasts. “You are an exceptional nigger, Platt, but I fear no good will come of it,” says Epps, and by the final scenes of “12 Years a Slave,” Northup is no longer articulate and accommodating but a shellshocked husk. (“You educated?” he’s asked late in the film. “No, suh.”) Epps has a passion for one of his slaves, Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o, in the film’s most heartbreaking performance), for which he equally adores and detests her, and the scene in which he makes Northup the instrument of his sickness is where the movie at last, and most horribly, touches bottom.

Around now you’re likely asking yourself why on earth you’d want to see such a film, no matter how many raves and awards it may win — no matter if co-producer Brad Pitt does turn up in a small but crucial (and somewhat distracting) role late in the movie. Well, because you live in America, obviously. Whether your ancestors came over on the Mayflower or you got here yesterday, to exist in this country is to partake of a society whose DNA is encoded with an injustice. Over the centuries, that genetic material has made itself evident, and continues to make itself evident, in ways overt, subtle, and far too varied to catalog. It is our cross and we shrink from carrying it. Maybe that’s why we’re so very good at manufacturing pop-culture entertainments, diversions that keep us suspended in an eternal Now while prettifying the past. We’re a culture that can turn the worst of our history into a glib, beautifully made whoop-em-up like “Django Unchained.”

“12 Years a Slave” makes that film look like the work of a posturing brat — may even make you ashamed of having enjoyed “Django.” The issue here isn’t white guilt (a cheap enough commodity) but the act of fully confronting the specifics of what we as a nation did to a people we brought here by force. Only then can we even begin to have an honest conversation about where to go from there. So don’t look away, this movie insists with measured, artful fury. Don’t dare look away.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.
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