Solomon Northup, the son of a former slave, was a free man living in upstate New York when he was tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He spent twelve years working for a series of masters in the sugar and cotton plantations of the swampy Louisiana bayou country until regaining his freedom against the odds. This film is based on the account of his experiences, written in conjunction with a white lawyer called David Wilson, and authenticated, including in part by the drunken and sadistic Mr Epps, his final master.
With his artist's eye , McQueen brings out the beauty of the natural landscape, red sunrise over the river, hanging branches draped in Spanish moss, or the rhythmic power of the paddle-steamer, carving furrows through the sparkling water as it transports the captives to their harsh destiny. This film renounces any sentimentality, ramming home the fact that slaves were regarded as property so could be treated without any consideration or mercy. The only reason for keeping them alive was because an owner had paid good money for them, and they could earn more for him through their labour. We see how Mr Epps could terrorise a female slave with whom he had become sexually obsessed, whilst his wife tormented the poor woman at the same time out of jealousy.
Everyone will learn something different from this drama. In my case, it was the extent to which slaves were punished for being literate, since this was seen as giving access to knowledge and revolt. Ironically, slaves were then despised for the ignorance in which they were held. Also, when their stories were written with the help of a white people, it was claimed that hardships had been exaggerated by abolitionists to strengthen their case.
The violent beatings are hard to witness. It's debatable whether these scenes are too long, the rationale being that this brings home the intolerable brutality endured. One striking moment is when the hero has to burn, out of fear of discovery, a letter which he has taken great pains to produce, in perhaps his last chance to get help. Another is when, having resolutely refused to sing the haunting spirituals, the only emotional outlet for slaves, Northup at last gives in, belting the song out lustily in his anger.
Chitwetel Ejiofor deserves all the praise that has been heaped on him, with his expressive face conveying in turn disbelief, fear, anger, despair, hope and even loss at the point of his release when he has to leave behind to suffer alone someone for whom he has come to care.