It’s the most tightly wired dramatic confrontation in a movie full of them. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), the plantation owner who is also a wily manipulator of racial animosity (his own and that of his slaves), accuses Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) of trying to sneak a letter up north by smuggling it out with one of the plantation’s workers. To save himself, Solomon must concoct an intricate spur-of-the-moment lie, which Ejiofor enacts with a courage and terror that’s quietly breathtaking. The tension is amazingly sustained. Yet it also quivers with meaning.
The way Edwin holds Solomon’s face next to his, he seems to be saying, “Look at me! I’m a lie detector!” Yet what their physical closeness really expresses is the intimacy — the inner equality — of slaves and their “masters.” Edwin knows, deep down, that Solomon is his equal, which is why he has to work so hard to deny it. And Solomon knows this too, which is why he must work even harder. No scene in American movies has caught that duel of racial deception, booby-trapped with the threat of violence, the way this one does.