Not since ”The Passion of the Christ” will you flinch in horror this much, listening to the sniffles and quiet gasps around you as you try to keep watching man’s brutality and inhumanity to man. A story about slavery is never going to be entertaining fun (unless it’s the revenge fantasy of Django Unchained), but writer/director Steve McQueen is like that droid in the dungeon of Jabba’s palace, turning you upside down to apply scalding hot irons to your feet.
When brutal suffering is the hallmark of many a film with Oscars in its eyes, McQueen is the bloodthirsty Grand Inquisitor of 2013. And it’s not even hero Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who bears the worst of it, but the doll-like Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in a single scene that will leave you feeling as spiritually unclean as if you’d watched Wolf Creek and Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer on a constant loop.
Solomon is an upstanding African American gentleman and family man in the slave-free North when he’s duped by two slave drivers posing as travelling musicians. Solomon wakes up after being drugged to find himself chained up in a dark hellhole, thrown together with another group of blacks to be sold into slavery.
The episodic nature of the story sees him pass through the hands of several masters, starting with callous slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti). He’s sold to the plantation owned by Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a good-hearted man who ultimately proves himself spineless when he can’t protect Solomon against his vengeful and cruel plantation foreman Tibeats (Paul Dano). It’s at Tibeats’ hand Solomon suffers his first real taste of what slavery can mean when he spends the day suspended from a tree by a noose, his toes barely touching the ground while he fights for breath as children play nearby.
Ford reluctantly sells Solomon into the hands of an even worse fate – the monstrous Epps (Michael Fassbender), a psychotic whose love/hate relationship with both his emasculating wife and the slaves he owns makes him even more dangerous.
When Solomon is finally delivered from his decade-long hell, it’s not by some grand plot device or narrative twist, and it makes the story feel even more like a set of chapters that needn’t really be connected (aside from it being true).
When it’s all over, you wonder if there’s been any real point except to make you suffer too. Northrup’s plight isn’t any more tragic because he was free and living in America rather than kidnapped from Africa like millions of others, and the fact that slavery was brutal and shameful isn’t news – if you’ve ever Alex Haley’s Roots you don’t need the relaxed screen standards of today to show you how shockingly slaves were treated in the American South.
McQueen seems to just make you want to feel bad, and he does so in volumes.