I'm coming at this too early, having seen the film less than 48 hours ago. I need more time to process what I saw, but there's also a need to communicate the essence of the experience before the passage of time begins its inevitable, relentless smoothing effect.
I didn't read or seek out too much information about 12 Years a Slave before seeing it. I can't explain why because I usually need a lot of information before deciding to watch a film - especially at the cinema. There was something in Chiwetel Ejiofor's face, when I saw him briefly interviewed, something quiet and honest, which compelled me to see him in action.
Ejiofor's performance is based upon the true story of Solomon Northup, a free born African American kidnapped into slavery in 1841. Lured to Washington from his home in Saratoga by a false job offer, Northup was drugged, sold to an illegal slave trader and put on a boat bound for New Orleans.
Upon arrival in New Orleans Northup is renamed "Platt" and given the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia to conceal the fact that he is a free man. The metamorphosis of the cultured, confident Northup, a talented violinist and family man with two children, to a man in chains is swift.
After a fellow slave on the boat advises the only way to survive is to "… do and say as little as possible. Tell no-one who you really are, and tell no-one that you can read and write", Northup witnesses the murder of Robert, another slave, by one of the boat's crew. Realising that resistance, or any form of escape attempt while aboard would likely lead to his death, Northup instead resolves to seek freedom once the boat has landed.
If the brutality to that point was hard to watch, it was merely a precursor to the full extent of what Northup would endure throughout his years of bondage. But, horrific as many of the graphic scenes of lashings and beatings were, the true power of 12 Years a Slave does not come from its violent bloodshed.
It may seem something of a contradiction to assert that the cruelty served only to heighten the impact of scenes free of savagery. Northup appears to grow ever-more gentle with each undeserved punishment, conveying less a sense of being 'worn down', than an air of retreating further inside his own impenetrable mental and emotional shell.
Far from taking the character away from the audience, however, this withdrawal creates an impression of his seeking to protect us from the barbarism he suffers, taking us safely down into the kernel of his resolute determination for survival. He takes a golden chance for escape in the form trusting a white worker to post a letter on his behalf, to inform friends in the north of what has befallen him. He is betrayed, and only narrowly manages to convince his psychotic master, the terrifyingly unpredictable Edwin Epps (played with malevolent intent by Michael Fassbender) that the betrayer is a liar, out for his own ends.
Amongst the sweat and tears there are moments of sublime beauty a'plenty: dappled sunlight trickling through the trees, shyly exposing peeps of Titian-esque sky and plump, rosily-lit clouds. Gentle breezes dancing within the Spanish moss-draped branches of ancient oaks, and director Steve McQueen's signature evident in luscious, lingering shots of Northup's pain-soaked countenance.
Scenes depicting the singing of spiritual songs in the cotton fields are a particularly potent reminder of how slaves would keep their spirits up during hours of exhaustive labour. Their words resonate down the years as a haunting testimony to the physical resilience of people set to heavy work by plantation owners who kept them on the brink of malnutrition, while demanding ever-greater productivity.
One song-scene should, hereafter, rank among the most carefully-crafted and finely executed cinematic moments in movie history. One of the oldest members of Northup's slave community, overwhelmed by years of physical exertion, dies on the cotton field. That evening, he's buried by his peers, who crowd around the newly-filled grave to sing a final farewell.
"Roll Jordan, roll", they begin, slowly and quietly. We see Northup, lips pressed tightly together, refusing to sing. This is his moment of moments: go on living, or die - whether by his own hand or by that which believes it has just cause to strike the life from him we cannot be sure, but we can see the decision being weighed up. Though he has never seemed a particularly religious man, we're also witnessing the last reserves of faith in any spiritual saviour draining from him.
We close in on his glorious, ravaged face as voice after voice joins to swell the song. "Roll Jordan, roll", and we're rolling right there alongside them, determinedly trudging through the mud, blood and ceaseless toil, feeling every shred of hopelessness, each kick in the backside and every crack of the whip.
Northup's battle rages within and we sense a reckoning about to take place. All the years of quiet dignity and patient reserve, which counted for nothing when he placed his trust in betraying hands, is dissolving, like early morning mist across the cotton fields.
But… but… there are some things that never die, no matter what you throw at them and Solomon Northup, in a split second, turns despair into new hope. We actually see it happen. Right there in front of our very eyes. His lips relax and he's singing, a voice of such pure and dazzling courage as to be matchless by any yet-invented conceivable standard. We stood on the precipice with him, and he let us experience what it might be like to die beside him.
If the movie were only those few, brief minutes and nothing else, it would still be better than anything else I've seen on the screen. Ever. It'd take a thousand scientists, a full century and all the money in the world to work out the formulaic equation for what just happened there and even then I bet it would be a pretty weak attempt at a theory.
And the greatest thing about it was that Chiwetel Ejiofor didn't need a stunt double, a car chase, an explosion, a gun-fight, outlandish make-up or even any dialogue to create this magic.
There are many other things I could say about 12 Years a Slave, but in the heat of my still-processing absorption, I fear they might give too much away, and I don't want to be a spoiler. In any case, nothing I could say will eloquently enough translate the virtuosic performances of all the actors from the screen to the written word.
Do yourself one very big favour and just watch it. I guarantee you, like me, will still be busily processing what you see long after the credits have finished rolling.