A label such as hero has lost its meaning of late. So ubiquitous today, it’s been rendered empty by being placed upon men and women who—while just, compassionate, and selfless—don’t quite reach the level of endured suffering for the word to earn its full weight. With America’s history possessing so much cowardice and hate, even some of its greatest legends can’t shake the damning facts which prove they’re less than the pristine pillars our books would like to tell. Yet in our darkest time—an era of unforgivable crimes against humanity unconscionable on this and all planes of existence due to many wielding their hurtful, false power in God’s name—a few courageous souls stood despite their fear and supposed insignificance to show the dignity and pride a word like “hero” truly embodies.
One of these is the tragic figure Solomon Northrup, a free black man from Saratoga, NY who was kidnapped and sold into slavery while playing his violin for a couple of circus chaps below the Mason-Dixon Line in 1841. Based on the autobiography of the same name, screenwriter John Ridley brings this virtually unknown figure into the light for all to see with 12 Years a Slave. Likened by director Steve McQueen to Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl, the level of detail and unimaginable pain Northup put to paper is a testament to his courage and history’s vilest secrets. It’s an unrelenting series of brutal atrocities performed by evil men of whom even the kindest were still too cowardly and reliant on slavery to ever voluntarily do anything to right the moral wrong they obviously felt.
Northup may not have been the only one to experience what he did—we meet a couple like him straight away in Michael K. Williams’ Robert and Chris Chalk’s Clemens—nor is he the only victim to eventually find himself freed. He is however a figure to admire as someone with a noble morality who refused to give up, refused to become that which kept him in chains, and refused to let his reclaimed freedom stand for nothing while so many others remained imprisoned without hope. He is forced to make unspeakable sacrifices in order to stay alive, doing what he can to comfort those around him while hopefully instilling a sense of their situation’s severity so that history’s slow crawl towards abolition can somehow catch up. His is a necessary voice to understand the horrors and ensure they never happen again.
Dutch auteur McQueen is no stranger to depicting this sort of hero—his debut Hunger did the same with Irish republican Bobby Sands. Much like that film, 12 Years a Slave pulls no punches in its portrayal of pain or injustice or protest to both. You only have to watch the harrowing, five-minute sequence of Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) hanging from a noose secured just low enough that standing on his tip-toes can prevent strangulation. No one would blame you for looking away as Ejiofor sputters and spits for breath in real time and without cuts as the rest of plantation’s slaves begin their work behind him as though nothing is amiss. It’s the culmination of a harsh series of juxtapositions between benevolent owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the vicious overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) that proves even kindness isn’t enough for salvation.
From there he goes to the Epps estate ruled with an iron fist by both master (Michael Fassbender’s Edwin) and mistress (Sarah Paulson). It’s here where we see the bloody lashes earned from subpar work; the rape of women with impunity by husband and the resulting rage wrought by wife for the slight against her position; and the betrayal of human decency whether the selfish white drunk Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) or former slave turned mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard), prideful in her willingness to have traded her body for the opportunity to sit at the table rather than serve it. Selfish act upon selfish act unfolds as human beings are treated like property and the rare chance to run meets a mob of judge, jury, and executioners in the forest about to snap two young men’s necks.
It’s all purposefully shown in stunning visual clarity with gorgeous compositions and captivating blocking to ensure we aren’t mired in the artifice when we should be fully invested in its content. Rather than the shaky-cam realism of fearing for your life, McQueen and cinematographer Sean Bobbitt hold everything in steady focus so we have no other choice but to look these prisoners in the eyes. Their tearful pain becomes etched in our minds as we helplessly watch the abuse. There is literally nothing we can do to alter what’s happening onscreen just like we cannot erase the past our country’s ancestors lived. The cries as the whip snaps down on Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o’s Patsey or the shrieks from Adepero Oduye’s Eliza upon losing her children cut into Hans Zimmer’s soaring score as truth needing to be told.
The performances they give will bring you to tears as they contemplate suicide rather than revolution—so worn, torn, and battered that death becomes the only mercy they can ever hope to attain. Fassbender and Paulson prove as revoltingly dangerous as Nyong’o and Ejiofor are sympathetically defeated; Dano as psychotic in his rendition of “Run, Nigger, Run” as the slaves he breaks are masses of flesh and stoic faces living each day in desperation that they don’t make an impression. Recognizable actors abound throughout this sprawling epic of torturous reality and yet each somehow melts away to become his/her character rather than celebrity—monsters and heroes alike. Nyong’o shines in her nakedly raw despair and Ejiofor in his unrelenting ability to never forget who he is beneath the slave exterior they call Platt.
Yes, his Northup is enslaved for much of the film’s duration, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t transport himself back in time to the loving arms of his wife and children. We are never allowed to forget what he has lost so that it this endeavor doesn’t just become another film about slavery to shock or guilt us. 12 Years a Slave is about a free citizen of these United States like you or I who was ripped from his life into a nightmarish world protected by apathetic laws rendering him anonymous and disposable. Whether black, white, or rainbow-colored, McQueen makes sure we cannot hide behind our skin or upbringing to cut ourselves off from Northup’s pain. No, his fate could have easily been ours if we were found in the company of con artists desperate for a buck.
This is the film’s power and the reason why it’s been so universally praised. It shows us that slavery could have happened to anyone had history been altered or the balance of power reversed. This is what Brad Pitt’s Bass means when he says helping Northup wouldn’t be a gift to give but his duty as a human being to perform. Northup’s tale tells us that no one is safe, that our freedom comes at a cost, and that every single man, women, or child deserves the same rights as the next because beneath all surfaces we are intrinsically the same. This isn’t just a story about slavery; it’s a plea for humanity to understand everything it holds dear can be taken in an instant. Only then can we hope peace will become a common goal rather than mere lofty fantasy.
 Michael Fassbender as “Edwin Epps” and Chiwetel Ejiofor as “Solomon Northup” in 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
 Lupita Nyong’o as “Patsey” in 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
 Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano in 12 YEARS A SLAVE.
 Sarah Paulson as “Mistress Epps” and Lupita Nyong’o as “Patsey” in Steve McQueens’s TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE.