How do you tell the story of something as enormous and horrifying as American slavery? In the case of 12 Years a Slave, the subject is played out on human bodies and in objects: a single sheet of precious foolscap writing paper, the juice of berries, a violin. Instead of taking on the history of the “peculiar institution,” the film narrows to a single story and these scattered things.
It is based on a memoir by Solomon Northup, a free man from Saratoga, New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. He is played by English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Inside Man, Dirty Pretty Things), whose Spencer Tracy–like ability to observe and calmly draw us into an experience is quite powerful here.