The harrowing, haunting “12 Years a Slave” follows the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man who was living in upstate New York in 1841 when kidnappers drugged him and sold him into slavery. Shanghaied and unable to prove his identity, Northup was shipped to Louisiana, held in bondage and forced into labor. He wanted only to get home. This is all you need to get started on “12 Years,” almost certainly the best film of 2013.
The adaptation, by English director Steve McQueen (“Shame,” “Hunger”), draws its immense strength from many sources. Foremost are the profound performances by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, Michael Fassbender as an imperious plantation owner, and Lupita Nyong’o as a young slave. There’s the cinematography by repeat McQueen collaborator Sean Bobbitt, who paints the South as a land of raw beauty and never misses a chance to stun the audience with his framing. Hans Zimmer’s score bleeds into the action seductively, mixing breathy reeds and simple percussion into grandiose swells, with a splash of steampunk thrown in. John Ridley’s script is the best work of his career, tapping a Victorian high elocution to convey the enormity of the crimes taking place.
The diction, notably, plants us in the antebellum South while connecting the audience with Solomon and other educated men and women threatened with slavery. The sum is a film that upsets the expectations we have for movies about slavery, abolition, racism and America’s original sin, the Civil War era. Solomon was reasonably prosperous up North. He was married, had kids, played violin for a living, dressed well. Ripping him from the middle class and stripping him of his humanity in a Deep South sugar cane field gives “12 Years” the feel of a traditional Holocaust story. The arc of the moral universe bends toward justice, as Martin Luther King Jr. would say a century later, and the narrative of America, if not of Western civilization altogether, allows us to atone for the sins of our forebears by making the future a more humane place. The horror of “12 Years” is watching progress unravel and run in reverse.
The film doesn’t ask us to contemplate the greater crime — stripping an educated man of his literacy or never seeing him as fit to educate in the first place. But as we are seeing this benighted world through an educated man’s eyes, we find atrocity explained in a familiar way. And in “12 Years,” it’s everywhere. Captivity, physical abuse and deprivation only begin to describe it. The first slaver who buys Solomon — a reasonably fair man, played by Benedict Cumberbatch — also tries to buy a similarly kidnapped mother and children, to hold the little family intact. The slave trader (Paul Giamatti’s ruthless cameo) explains the fair-skinned little girl is too valuable to package with the mother, because would-be child rapists have deep pockets. Fassbender’s philandering, scripture-spewing plantation owner underscores this philosophy when he declares, in a fit of violent pique, that he may do whatever he likes with his property.
Nowhere does “12 Years” waste a shot or a breath, and rarely does it grant its audience a breath of reprieve. There is no silver lining to Solomon’s despair. Any redemption for Southern slaveowners arrives as vapor and evaporates on sight. Those who love or live in the South will be unnerved throughout, as “12 Years” is, at heart, a wrongful imprisonment story in which the South — its vastness, its wilderness, its cruelty — stars as the prison. We’re still reckoning with this dark South that lied to itself for centuries, insisting, in Fassbender’s voice, that one person can own another and kill him at his discretion, or rape her at whim, not only legally, but with the complicit approval of a benevolent God.
The hundreds of years and millions of crimes built a terrible inertia that has yet to taper out, for the 1840s, ’50s and ’60s were not so long ago after all. When the Confederates seceded then, this vision was the banner they chose. When you see their emblem now — on trucks, on hats, on shirts, tattooed on skin, brandished at political rallies — you will flash back to “12 Years,” and the past will feel present, as it ever has been.