The history of slavery on film is inseparable from the fantasy of mastery. For that reason, any movie about slavery risks being seen as exploitation. It's always about what the master can do, potentially provoking prurient curiousity, as much as it's about what slaves endure. In the camera eye, the essence of slavery isn't merely exploitation; it is cruelty. The new film by the British director Steve McQueen, acclaimed by some as the best film ever made about American slavery, is no different. The true-life ordeal of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is upstaged, despite the best efforts of star and director, by the spectacle of the monster master. Northup, a free black from New York State who was kidnapped by slavers who enticed the many-skilled man, a husband, father and homeowner. As a free-born citizen of a free state, Northup didn't have to carry papers proving he wasn't a slave, so once taken south, he can't prove his free status. The film follows in the footsteps of Uncle Tom's Cabin as Northup first toils under a "good" but ultimately ineffectual master (Benedict Cumberbatch), then suffers under a Simon Legree type (McQueen alter ego Michael Fassbender). In effect, farce is repeated as tragedy, as one can only laugh at Northup's struggles with Cumberbatch's overseer. Paul Dano's performance may type him once and for all as cinema's designated whipping boy -- white division, of course. He's the nearest thing this film has to comic relief, introducing himself with an inanely offensive work song like something out of Blazing Saddles. He's so unmenacing a figure that it's hard to take him seriously, though his part of the film has a cruel punch line. Humiliated by Northup, the Dano character tries to string the slave up, only to be thwarted by an overseer who has promised to protect Northup. The overseer then leaves Northup to barely avoid strangling in the noose by standing tip-toe in mud until Cumberbatch can figure out what to do with him. In a telling shot, slave children play in the background as Northup struggles for life. McQueen holds the shots of Northup struggling for very long periods. It's a chancy tactic, since there's often a temptation to laugh when this sort of shot is held for too long. Northup's ordeal, however, is only a prelude for the over-the-top antics at Fassbender's plantation.
Cumberbatch plays a cluelessly pious master fond of reading the Bible to his slaves yet ultimately lacking in Christian compassion, while Fassbender finds justification for his cruelty in the same book. He's archetypically dissolute and depraved, a figure who would not be out of place in such less respectable fare as the Mandingo movies or Django Unchained, except that he'd rather see his slaves dance than fight. Essential to his archetype is the sexual exploitation of slaves, and the object of Fassbender's questionable affections is Patsy (Lupita Nyong'o), a mighty mite of cotton-picking productivity. She can pick more than 500 pounds a day while Northup is lucky if he can manage half as much. Fassbender's wife despises Patsy, in one scene hitting the young woman in the face with a full glass decanter. Fassbender himself abuses Patsy as much as he romances her, to say the least. McQueen manages to make this less exploitative than it might seem by deglamorizing Patsy. Nyong'o is a petite woman with close-cropped hair who accumulates scars throughout the picture. No one in the audience, presumably, would fantasize about possessing the wretched Patsy sexually, so Fassbender's lust seems unfathomably strange. Fassbender's performance throughout is fearlessly over-the-top, as it must be to break the spell of fantasy around the character's mastery.
Ejiofor is brilliantly indignant in the lead role, but the film's fidelity to history limits the actor's opportunities to dominate it while screenwriter John Ridley's attempt to make 19th century characters, free and slave alike, more articulate and deliberate in their speech than we are may distance audiences from Northup's emotional experience of his ordeal. Fortunately the visuals more than make up for any distancing effect the dialogue may have on uncomprehending viewers. McQueen has an interesting eye, often focusing on familiar objects in disorienting close-up or landscapes rendered abstract by reflection or atmospheric effects. One especially effective shot turns the blades of a steamboat paddle wheel into a red maw of death as Northup is carried down the river. His long takes are endurance tests for the viewer that hint at Northup's greater test of endurance. Ejiofor and Fassbender top a talented or at least game cast, from Paul Giamatti's brief but chilling turn as a slave trader to producer Brad Pitt's self-congratulatory cameo as a good white whose intervention finally frees Northup. There's a strange irony in the ending that McQueen may not have appreciated or even noticed: even at the heart of slavery's darkness there is still a rule of law that pries Northup from Fassbender's grip. Once Northup makes contact with people who can make contact with authorities in New York, the law, even in a slave state, works in Northup's favor. I'm not sure what this might prove to the audience, or whether it contradicts any impression the film meant to make. It's clear, however, that Northup is miraculously exceptional in acquiring a Get Out of Slavery card, while Patsy and the rest of Fassbender's victims are stuck with him. Some critics have suggested that Northup's limited ordeal doesn't get to the essence of the slavery experience, and the film itself has another kidnapped black draw comparisons between victims like Northup and "born and bred" slaves who have no fight in them. On the other hand, Northup's ordeal probably makes him a better audience-identification figure while augmenting the horror of the story by protraying slavery as something that can happen to anyone -- we even see a white man temporarily reduced to debt-slavery under Fassbender -- rather than something only certain people are born into. If McQueen manages to inspire more nightmares of enslavement than fantasies of dominance, then 12 Years will have lived up to its already lofty reputation among slavery pictures. For now, McQueen should be satisfied with having made one of this year's best films.