NYFF review: "12 Years a Slave" a wrenching odyssey

Chiwitel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave," directed by Steve McQueen. Fox Searchlight

It's only a short 400 miles from Saratoga, N.Y., to Washington, D.C. But in 1841 that was about the distance to Hell itself, it seemed -- where a free black man from the North could be kidnapped and sold into slavery.

"12 Years a Slave," a new film from British director Steve McQueen, is based on a narrative published in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a married musician who awakened in the nation's capital in chains and at the mercy of slave traders.

Without papers to prove his free status, Northup was transported across the Mason-Dixon Line to the Deep South, beginning a wrenching odyssey that would have sent most souls to the pits of despair.

In short order, Northup experiences the degradations of a human being that is treated as property, whether from the mercantile interests of businessmen haggling over the prices of human chattle, to the arrogance of overlords bending slaves to their will, through the whip, the rope or the Bible.

From the start of his journey Northup is advised by other prisoners to hold his tongue and withhold the fact that he is a learned man of letters, for an education could be his death mark. During his trek from one Louisiana plantation to the next, Northup must contend with the masters who see his knowledge as an arrogance to be punished, and with fellow slaves whose fear and contrition are the tools of their own survival.

What makes this story particularly noteworthy is the lack of sentimentality in its telling -- while it features brutality (beatings, whippings, lynchings, rapes), it also conveys the icy chill of power exercised without remorse, as when men and women of the landed gentry were complicit in separating slave mothers from their children, to maximize profit. The quiet desperation of the slaves turns into a strait-jacket, made all the more intolerable by the master's assurance that their emotional pain will ebb.

The actors are excellent, leading with Chiwitel Ejiofor ("Children of Men," "Kinky Boots") as Northup, who delicately balances his fear, disgust, hope and anger so as to preserve the razor-slim chance that justice will find him. Michael Fassbender, the star of McQueen's two previous features, "Hunger" and "Shame," is startlingly good as a man of supreme arrogance waving scripture as a rationale for his sin.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwitel Ejiofor in "12 Years a Slave."
Fox Searchlight

Also in the cast are Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Garret Dillahunt, and Paul Giamatti as a buyer, seller and poker of flesh; Brad Pitt as a Canadian who dares to express his abolitionist views within the cradle of slavery; and Alfre Woodard, as a woman who long ago had made her peace with acquiescing to a master's will, if it kept her from toiling in the cotton fields.

Making her feature film debut, Lupita Nyong'o is touching as Patsey, a young slave who is the object of her master's lust -- and the target of scorn from the woman of the house.

The title may be a giveaway that Northup's odyssey does, in fact, end (as few such kidnappings into slavery did indeed end well for the victim). But nothing else in "12 Years a Slave" is so clear-cut and predictive of justice, least of all the eyes of Ejiofor, which witness an institutional inhumanity that would, one character foretells, bring a Day of Reckoning to the nation.

The film, which won the People's Choice Award when it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, bows today at the New York Film Festival, before opening nationwide on October 18.

"12 Years a Slave" is being distributed by Fox Searchlight. It is rated R (for violence, cruelty, nudity and brief sensuality). To view a trailer for the film, click on the video player below.

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  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.

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