12 Years a Slave is a film full of barbaric acts, but the image that has remained most prominent in my thoughts since I saw the film is a simple close-up on a bar of soap. When slave girl Patsey (the astonishing newcomer Lupita Nyong'o) leaves the plantation to acquire the soap, she is whipped savagely upon her return at the behest of the plantation owner Epps (Michael Fassbender) in a scene of almost unbearable ferocity that unfolds in a single take. When the violence has finally abated, and her hands are untied, she drops the soap that she has clung onto throughout her ordeal. Patsey wanted nothing more than to bathe and to rid herself of the stench that is making her gag, but that simple privilege was denied her, and instead she was punished for her insolence.
In this scene and others, 12 Years a Slave shows us how slavery de-humanised those who fell victim to it. The film's physical violence will surely draw plenty of attention, but Steve McQueen never lets us overlook the emotional, physical and spiritual violence that the back characters in the film are forced to endure. We see black men and women standing naked in a room as they are inspected by potential owners like livestock; we see a group of slaves forced to clap along as their overseer (Paulo Dano) sings a song entitled Run, Nigger, Run; We see a mother (Adepero Oduye) succumb to grief after being separated from her two children, only to be coldly reassured by the plantation owner's wife that she will soon forget her offspring. What's telling about many of these scenes is how easily they come to the white characters and how the degradation of black people is viewed an everyday part of life; simply the natural order of things. Even Brad Pitt's abolition-favouring character liberally refers to "niggers" in his speech, and two circus promoters talk about one of their attractions being an exotic specimen "from darkest Africa" as they sit in a restaurant with Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
12 Years a Slave has been adapted from Northup's memoir, which he published in 1854, and the story he tells is so incredible it seems remarkable that it hasn't been brought to the screen before now. Northup was an educated free man living with his family in New York in 1841. A talented musician and a respected member of the local community, he seemed safely ensconced from the horrors of the slave trade, but on an trip to Washington he was given drink until he passed out and when he awoke he was in chains, his former identity having been stripped from him. Northup changes hands on a number of occasions during the film, from slave trader Freeman (Paul Giamatti) – who claims his sentimentality "extends no further than a coin" – to plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose own sense of inner conflict over the ownership of slaves is interesting and perhaps underexplored, before landing with the brutal, scripture-spouting Epps.
It is during the time spent with Ford that McQueen stages one of the film's most memorable sequences, as Northup is punished for an infraction by being hung from a tree, able to keep himself alive by standing on the tips of his toes. For hours he languishes there, as slaves go about their business in the background, none daring to even acknowledge him never mind consider cutting him down. Eventually, one runs up to him with a drink of water, before scurrying nervously away. Throughout 12 Years a Slave, McQueen and his cinematographer Sean Bobbitt find simple but powerful images that speak volumes about the situation and the characters' positions within it. McQueen's undeniably potent sense of visual composition serves the fluid, increasingly involving narrative beautifully here. 12 Years a Slave is artfully crafted with scenes that exhibit remarkable technical virtuosity but it is all aimed at drawing the viewer into the story rather than drawing attention to the technique. There's something rather old-fashioned and classical about the manner in which 12 Years a Slave's story unfolds, but its emotional power builds quietly and without recourse to sentimentality, almost sneaking up on the viewer. McQueen's dispassionate approach is perfectly attuned to this material.
A lot of the film's power comes from Chiwetel Ejiofor's central performance. McQueen gets so much from his face alone, with his expression reflecting the acts of inhumanity that take place in front of him and showing us his own inner turmoil as he suppresses his intelligence and true feelings simply to survive. Ejiofor leads an exceptional ensemble of actors, all of whom superbly portray characters affected and compromised in some way by the sin of slavery, but it Northup's extraordinary redemptive journey that gives the film its satisfying and emotionally overwhelming impact. "Your story is amazing, and in no good way," Northup is told towards the end of the film, after revealing what he has been through. It truly is an amazing story, and the best thing one can say about the manner in which Steve McQueen has brought it to the screen is that he has done that story justice.