Twelve Years a Slave, the first non-Tarantino major motion picture in years to offer a slave’s-eye view of the antebellum South, would probably have been guaranteed admiring reviews and a Best Picture nomination even if it had turned out to be ponderous, turgid, and pedantic. Fortunately, it’s artful enough, moving enough, and sometimes ravaging enough to mostly justify the critical reception. Some of the reviews are promising too much: This is not a work of unmatched cinematic greatness, and its unflinching portrait of the mechanics of slavery sometimes gives the human side of things short shrift. But given the historical burden 12 Years carries, it’s still a film that acquits itself impressively and deserves to be admired.
The story is a true (or mostly true) one, based on a narrative written by Solomon Northup, a free black man and accomplished violinist from Saratoga who was kidnapped while on a visit to Washington, D.C., drugged, and shipped southward into bondage. With no one to trust, no one with any incentive to believe his story, and no legal or practical means of communicating with the North, the movie’s Northup passes from the comforts of middle-class respectability into the concentric circles of peculiar-institution hell: first the vicious efficiency of a slave trader (Paul Giamatti), then the hapless rule of a half-decent, would-be-Christian plantation owner (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then finally the infernal grip of the story’s Simon Legree figure, the ruthless alcoholic Edwin Epps.