A gentle breeze blows, bright-green grass rustles in the brilliant sun, birds call, children laugh in the distance. And in the middle of all of this, a black man hangs from a tree.
That image, which I would argue is the central image of 12 Years a Slave, illustrates the contradictions on which the economy of the South was created, that all of that verdant beauty was possible because of the impossibly ugly treatment of the slaves who built it.
Based on a true story, 12 Years a Slave focuses on an especially odd chapter in the story of slavery, that of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery while his wife and children were visiting relatives.
The film's opening, which cuts jarringly between two periods of Northup's life, establishes the confusion of waking up one day in a completely different world. Throughout 12 Years a Slave, we will shift back and forth between Solomon's grim present and his increasingly dreamlike past for visions that, like a prisoner of war, he uses to nurture his hope of survival.
Time remains elusive throughout 12 Years a Slave, as it probably was for Northup. It's never clear how many days or years are passing as he moves from a master who uses economic arguments as justification for slavery to one who cites the Bible to do so. But Ejiofor's spare, dignified performance — it's all about his eyes, because Northup does not speak much — keeps us anchored in the movie's present because the past is too painful for Northup and his fellow slaves, and the future is too unlikely.
Given the brutality it depicts, director Steve McQueen's film is unexpectedly calm. Its point of view mirrors Northup's. Like him, we are taught that it does not pay to trust white men who seem kind, and like him, we never know what horror will befall him next. But the film observes without judging.
That's a smart tactic because it draws us into the movie, forcing us to confront the matter-of-fact inhumanity of slavery. How, we are encouraged to wonder, did people come to this? How could anyone have thought this was OK?
12 Years a Slave is an episodic film that checks in on Northup periodically, but McQueen moves it along smoothly, pausing to observe a variety of reactions to slavery, ranging from Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), who asks to be killed instead of having to endure the frequent rapes of her master (Michael Fassbender), to a woman (Alfre Woodard) who got out of slavery by marrying a white man and who predicts with unnerving calm, "In his own time, the good Lord will manage 'em all."
Like Edward P. Jones' brilliant novel of slavery, The Known World, in which some people owned their own mothers and abolitionists kept slaves, 12 Years a Slave draws close to a variety of characters in an effort to help us understand the inexplicable.
McQueen shows us one appalling thing after another, refusing to flinch. He wants us to see how awful it was and to understand what Northup means when he insists he can withstand the beatings, the humiliations and the murders of his friends because he knows there is a better world where he won't just survive, but live.
'12 Years a Slave'
R for violence/cruelty, some nudity and brief sexuality. Fox Searchlight Pictures. 2:14. Fayette Mall, Hamburg, Kentucky.