Steve McQueen’s adaptation of the memoir of a free black man, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ojiofor) lured from family and respect in New York to kidnapping and bondage in Louisiana, is haunting, meditative and thought-provoking. Precious few feature films dramatizing slavery have been produced and those that have tend to make the experience secondary or simplistic. That Quentin Tarantino could say of his riotous comic book Django Unchained “I wanted to break that history-under-glass aspect, I wanted to throw a rock through that glass and shatter it for all times, and take you into it” almost certainly speaks more than he knows. Tarantino’s rock through the glass was the introduction of such fictions as Mandingo fighting, near-automatic weaponry and Roland Emmerichian explosives to the Deep South.
Thankfully, in his lyrical portrait, the director McQueen evokes is Terence Malick rather than Tarantino. The look and patience of the film reminded me of The Thin Red Line, especially with its mournful Hans Zimmer score. But where Malick’s characters are wisps or archetypes, and his stories formless, Ojiofor’s Northup is distinct and his tale is stark, requiring that he sublimate his educated status to a facade of ignorance and become invisible. When this is not possible, he catches the attention of an insecure overseer (Paul Dano) or a sadistic owner (Michael Fassbender). Ojiofor’s performance is riveting, a study in restrained fury and canny survival. Matthew McConaughey is favored to win the best actor Oscar, and if they gave awards for years, he would win hands down for Mud, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyer’s Club and, for good measure, HBO’s True Detective.
But Ojiofor deserves the award. It is not even close.
McQueen’s film is strongest at its quietest. The scenes of brutality pale in comparison to the humdrum portrait of plantation life, where children play while slaves are beaten or lynched. A simple walk across the yard becomes a study in terror, made even more frightening because most times, violence gives way to languor or malaise. Giving us the viewpoint of a man who has expected freedom his entire life, a man with a wife and two children, is a searing perspective.
One criticism. Near the end of the film, Northup comes across an abolitionist who secures his release. Producer Brad Pitt plays the abolitionist and to say that his appearance is distracting is an understatement. He simply radiates big star and his ahistorical discussion on the merits and future of slavery with plantation master Epps (Fassbender) doesn’t help. It is a minor issue, but noteworthy because it was so avoidable.