The persistent, broody tension starts before the lights even dim for the first preview. The title 12 Years a Slave foretells the inciting incident that upsets the balance of Solomon Northup's (Chiwetel Ejiofor) normal life. We also expect with the slavery topic that there will be scenes of atrocities illustrating the inhumanity necessary for one human to domineer another.
The opening stirs our curiosity with a team of slaves being told how to harvest cane. How did Northup get there? Director Steve McQueen gradually reveals the small steps that led down this horrific path in a graceful time-skipping sequence. Like a horror movie where you want to shout at the screen to not open that door, we know where this is headed before Northup does.
The old adage "The situation defines the person" is powerfully at play in this plot, but what makes the movie so personally emotion, is the intimate way it connects us to each character. I felt compelled to constantly ask, "What would I do in that situation?"
In connecting with Northup, I was questioning would I have trusted the traveling magicians and their extremely generous offer; once kidnapped, would I have fought and died or acquiesced and went to the second location; in bondage, would I have revealed who I really was or kept quiet and did as I was told?
Northup's decisions get regularly reinforced by watching the consequences others' actions bring them. After disposing of the body of one slave who choose to fight back, Clemens, a fellow kidnapee, counsels Northup with "Survival is not about certain death. It's about keeping your head down."
That's a option Northup later repeats to Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a mother who loses her two children and falls into a perpetual state of wailing. "I survive. I will not fall into despair. I will offer up my talents to Master Ford. I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune."
McQueen filmed the movie in 35 days with one camera, and the single-shot scenes are fluid, beautiful and real. One of my favorites is when Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) pulls Northup out of his bunk house in the middle of the night to confront him about an alleged escape plan. Oh, the tenseness as the two stand nose-to-nose.
Another dramatic single-shot moment happens when a group of slaves are burying a fellow laborer who died in the cotton field. An elderly woman starts sining "Roll, Jordan Roll," and gradually others join in. Northup resists at first, and as the camera focuses on him, he finally starts singing. We see him struggle with the reality that he might die here too, but his voice gets stronger, and he clings to his first response to Clemen's advice, "Well, I don't want to survive. I want to live."
Northup's fortitude and determination are inspiring. Shortly after seeing the movie, I saw this quote from a friend on Instagram.
With 12 Years a Slave, I found the opposite to be true. I smiled because it was over, and cried because it happened.