TORONTO — There is a scene in 12 Years a Slave that will haunt me for the rest of my life.
I don’t think I should say anything more about that particular scene, but I will say that 12 Years a Slave — which screened Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival after its world premiere last week at the Telluride Film Festival — is nothing less than the most emotionally powerful film I have seen in a decade, at least. I was a sobbing wreck during and after the film, in only the way a work of great art can affect you to your marrow. I walked out of the theater with the firm conviction that everyone needs to see it, because it is one of the only American films to deal head-on with slavery; because it is a great work of cinema and storytelling; and because we are all human beings who feel feelings.
Am I overselling it? Is it over-the-top to say I suspect that director Steve McQueen, star Chiwetel Ejiofor, screenwriter John Ridley, and the movie itself are destined for Oscars, and with due respect to the many fabulous movies that have and will come out this year, no other film can compete? No. It is not. It is that good, and that great, and I really do not mind saying it.
OK, here is a little more about the movie: Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York who, in 1842, was lured to Washington D.C., and from there kidnapped and sold into slavery in Louisiana. It’s based on a true story — you can read about it here — and if you are paying attention to the title, you already have a sense of how the movie ends. But that does not diminish the film’s hold and power at all.
McQueen has marshaled a superlative cast, including Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s first owner; Paul Giamatti as the slaver who sells him; Alfre Woodard as the well-off mistress of a philandering plantation owner; and Brad Pitt (also one of seven credited producers) as a Canadian abolitionist. But the performances people will want to talk about after the film belong to Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender as Northup’s main, cruel owner Edwin Epps, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, the slave who receives the lion’s share of Epps’ affections, and cruelty.
This is just a first draft reaction, and there is so much more to discuss with this film, including Hans Zimmer’s affecting score and Sean Bobbitt’s stunning cinematography, its subtle demolition of long-held tropes about American slavery, and an ending that, were this historical fiction, could feel a bit too convenient. But this is a movie that will lash itself to your memory, and stay there, permanently. There will be plenty of time to talk about it.