Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup. He's been a "that guy" actor for sometime – film-goers may know his face but not his name. After this film his name will be known. He gives, quite simply, the best performance from a leading actor since Daniel Day Lewis in There Will Be Blood. Because of his character's position as a slave he is usually unable to speak his mind unless he is prepared to be beaten. As a result Ejiofor is forced to utilize body language and his eyes, which become enormous pools of emotion to express himself to the audience. He's forced to endure terrible things, but he always maintains a certain dignity and nobility that makes his plight even more affecting. It's a performance of incredible subtlety that may leave you speechless and in complete awe.
Micheal Fassbender gives the best performance of his already extremely impressive career, even besting his previous high marks from the films Shame and Hunger (both directed by Steve McQueen, who also directed 12 Years a Slave). He plays Edwynn Epps, a vicious and demonic slaver and perhaps the most loathsome and disgusting character ever put on screen. If alive today, he'd likely be a drunk with severe anger management issues. By turns pathetic and terrifying, he embodies the ultimate nightmare of a deeply flawed man given absolute power over other human beings, and through that absolute power finds only madness, which drives him to deeper cruelty. He's always a menacing and malignant presence even when not on screen, as his slaves must always be aware and prepared for his seemingly random bouts of sadism.
Other actors give excellent performances as well. Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard are all great in relatively small roles. But in this film of titans it's the one you've probably never heard of who perhaps stands above them all. In her first role in a feature film, Lupita Nyong'o, playing the pretty young slave Patsey - the object of Edwynn Epps demented and horrifying affections and the emotional epicenter of the entire picture, gives one of the most devastating performances I have ever seen. A portrait of unbearable sadness, her character is a mirror image of Solomon. While Solomon is a man who refuses to break and give up the dignity which he's known since birth, she is one who has long since been broken, and who never knew dignity in the first place. Her life is a living hell, forced to endure the "love" of Edwyn Epps and the brutal jealousy of his wife, she's trapped in a terrible triangle that she can't escape. Despite that, she retains a level of innocence that only heightens the tragedy of her character. It actually gets to the point where simply looking at this character might be enough to bring you to tears. It's a shattering performance.
Starting his career as a video artist before making full length films, Steve McQueen has an uncanny eye for imagery and contrast. He's also a very patient film maker, utilizing long, steady single shots to emphasize various things. In his prior films this has felt like a purely stylistic choice, here, it's a choice aimed directly at our heart. When the events on screen become their most horrifying and ugly is when his camera becomes the most unflinching. At times feeling perhaps like we're seeing out of the solemn eyes of the ghost of some murdered slave, watching in sorrow and rage. This is both McQueen's most accessible and artistically searing film yet.
There are also moments of stunning natural beauty that would make Terrence Malick proud. Alone, these shots would inspire wonder, but in the context of this film they make us feel more forlorn, as if the ugliness of man is encroaching on the natural beauty of the world.
Perhaps the most noteworthy thing about 12 Years a Slave is the way that it portrays slavery itself. Instead of taking the easy way out and limiting his exploration of the topic solely to the slaves, Steve McQueen increases the scope and we see how it affects those who profited by it. Take Benedict Cumberbatch's character. A seemingly decent and caring man who treats his slaves with some semblance of respect and kindness. He comes off as a relatively good man who is trapped within the powerful confines of the institution of slavery. In 12 Years a Slave, slavery is shown as a horrifying and destructive social construct that drains the humanity from everyone it touches, turning good men into moral quandaries, turning flawed men into monsters, and turning an entire race of people into livestock and tools.
To watch 12 Years a Slave is to be confronted with the grim reality of slavery in a way that's never been done before. To say this is the best film ever made about slavery feels trivial, as slavery is a subject in film that has been shown with naive romanticism from films like Gone With the Wind or silly exploitation from something like Django Unchained. Both of which serve to make the topic digestible. To watch 12 Years a Slave is to experience a level of despair and misery that can become overwhelming. It's a film of such ugliness, such blunt emotional trauma, that it may haunt you for hours if not days after seeing it. So why should you watch a film that could leave you reeling and devastated? Because, it's also one of the greatest cinematic achievements of our time.