Solomon Northup was a free black man in New York state in the 1840s. He was kidnapped and taken to Louisiana where he worked as a slave for 12 years.
This remarkable new film is based on the memoir he wrote after gaining his freedom. It is directed by Steve McQueen, who made Hunger about Bobby Sands and the IRA hunger strikers.
It is resolutely not an adventure, showing the boredom and brutality of the slaves’ lives.
Yet for a film showing such horror, 12 Years a Slave is often surprisingly beautiful.
Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Much of the power of his performance comes from sharing his experience while he cannot react in any reasonable or emotional way.
“Are you an engineer or a nigger?” asks an overseer when Solomon makes a practical suggestion about how to better build a house. For much of his captivity he has to hide that he can read and write.
In one unsettling scene Solomon is almost lynched, but life goes on for the slaves. Children play in the sun and the slaves continue their everyday tasks, ignoring him as he dangles on tiptoe.
This is a world where the only way to survive is not to notice the savagery. Any act of common humanity can lead to a whipping.
He is saved from lynching because it would destroy his value to his boss as property.
Scenes of his life on cotton plantations in the South are combined with memories of his family in the North. It is a stark contrast, but also shows that even in non-slave states life was uncertain for black people.
At one point Solomon is impressed by the apparent humanity of a slave owner, thinking he might be able to reason with him.
A woman slave is contemptuous, saying, “He’s a slaver. You’re no better than prize livestock.”
He learns to his peril how risky it is to trust white people. Yet there are moments of solidarity and a white artisan helps in Solomon’s plan for freedom.
The screen is often divided starkly into light and dark. Black skin is contrasted often with light sheets, in one case the winding sheet for a corpse.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Patsey, a woman whose owner Edwin Epps is obsessed with her and repeatedly rapes her.
Michael Fassbender gives an intense performance as Epps, who piously quotes scripture at his slaves.
Epps takes out the guilt he feels through further acts of cruelty. “You do this to yourself,” he tells Patsey as he has her whipped.
This is a very different world from Quentin Tarantino’s revenge fantasy Django Unchained. No one will cathartically wipe out all these white racists, and it ends many years before the civil war that ended slavery would begin.
Solomon’s response remains muted. As he faces his family for the first time in more than a decade he states, “I apologise for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.”