In 1841, violinist Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free and eminent citizen of Saratoga, New York — until he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. It will be 12 gruelling years before he again sees his wife and children in Saratoga.
Solomon’s first owner, Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) comments that his new slave, despite his best efforts not to disclose his identity or literacy, is “clearly no ordinary nigger, but I fear that no good will come of it”. After running foul of Ford’s overseer, Solomon is transferred to the custody of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a crazy, erratic cotton plantation owner.
From the time of his capture, Solomon endures and witnesses extreme physical and verbal abuse by southern white folk who treat the African American workers worse than they would treat animals. Almost as obscene as their sadism and white supremacism is their pious invocation of the Scriptures as justification. The most sickening instance of Epps’ warped sensibility is his treatment of tragic Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), the young woman whom he regularly rapes and beats. This incites his spiteful, jealous wife (Sarah Paulson) to further maltreat the poor girl. It is little wonder that Patsey begs Solomon to kill her, to “do what I ain’t got the strength to do”. While we do not know Patsy’s fate, Solomon’s encounter with a Canadian builder, Mr Bass (Brad Pitt), eventually leads to his rescue and return to Saratoga and his family.
12 Years a Slave is an uncomfortably confronting film in its graphic portrayal of extreme brutality, including several lynchings. It is, however, a timely reminder that we still need to actively fight against the many contemporary instances of man’s inhumanity to man.
The film has received nine Oscar nominations.