If the critics at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival had their way, “12 Years a Slave” would win the Academy Award for Best Picture, despite the fact that there are still plenty of Oscar hopefuls yet to be released. That kind of short-sightedness and hyperbolic mentality is exactly what’s wrong with the dog and pony show we call awards season, because while Steve McQueen’s historical drama may tick several of the requisite boxes for a typical Oscar-winning movie, it’s far too early to make that call. You can praise the film’s realistic depiction of slavery all you like, but just because “12 Years a Slave” is hard to watch doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s deserving of the top prize.
Based on the 1853 memoir of the same name, the film recounts the tale of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York in 1841. Well-educated and a talented violinist, Solomon is invited to Washington, D.C. by a pair of circus promoters who offer him a lucrative job playing at one of their shows. Upon arriving in the capital city, Solomon is wined and dined by the two men, only to awaken the next morning to find himself shackled and charged as a fugitive slave from Georgia. Despite his claims that he’s a free man, Solomon is wrangled up with other “fugitives” and shipped to a slave trader in the South, who then sells him to a kindly plantation owner named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But when Solomon causes trouble with one of Ford’s white employees, he’s sold again, this time to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a decidedly more malicious owner with a reputation for breaking the spirits of any slave under his rule.