If I saw 12 Years a Slave only once, I’d probably remember a sad experience, a film whose rape and torture laid me low. Subtract the emotional wallop, though, and one hell of an entertainment remains. The pulpy horror starts with a pair of liars named Hamilton and Brown who look, in top hats at night, like gothic Jack-the-Ripper types. They drug and kidnap Solomon Northup, then sell him down a path whose signs say Run Or Fight And You Will Die, its menagerie of villains ending with drunken torturing rapist supervillain Edwin Epps (played with a frenzied, righteous commitment to evil by the great Michael Fassbender).
Brad Pitt’s terrible performance is the only acceptable excuse to claim this is not a great film, but Pitt is ancillary anyway. By the time he arrives with his “fearful ill” speech and saves Solomon, we’ve met someone more important. Patsey picks 500 pounds of cotton a day, while at night enduring rape and torture. She gets whipped (basically flayed) until she passes out, punishment for the offense of wanting to be clean. She begs Solomon to kill her: “God is merciful and he forgive merciful acts. Won’t be no hell for you. Do it. Do what I ain’t got the strength to do myself.”
Solomon’s happy ending is an emotional scene, powered by the huge crying eyes of actor Chewetel Ejiofor, but it’s not the ending that matters. How wonderful for Solomon, but in the previous scene, as he rides away from Epps’s hellish plantation, the background goes blurry just before Patsey faints. Then she’s gone. It’s easy to miss.
The hero is finally free, emerging from hell, but Patsey, exemplar of sympathy (in rare peaceful moments, she sings and makes little black and white corn-husk dolls), is left lower than ever. Her ending is tragic, and true to American history.
I want to enjoy a movie this well-made, this full of danger and grandiose bellicose bad guys. But I can’t. Its truth is too vile. And this is where greatness is achieved – when something so entertaining is too important to enjoy.