Film Review – 12 Years A Slave
12 Years A Slave
In school, we learned about slavery in our U.S. History class. We read the textbooks, we wrote reports, and we gave presentations on it. Besides perhaps the Holocaust, it is one of the worst crimes against humanity in recorded history, and it happened in this very country. Yes, we’ve been taught the horrors that came from selling black people to southern plantation owners, but there is something different between reading about it in a book and seeing it happen in a film. Director Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave is a brutal examination of this time period. He does not hold back; he reveals all the cruelty, nastiness, and evil this institution held. This is one of the more difficult filmgoing experiences of the year, but it is also one of the best. People from all walks of life should see this.
Like in Hunger (2008) and Shame (2011), McQueen focuses his camera closely on his material, and does not turn away. One of his biggest strengths is in forcing an audience to look at something they may not be comfortable with, and sitting on it for unbearable lengths. In one memorable scene, a slave gets hung by a noose, with his toes barely touching the ground to give him the ability to breathe. McQueen lets his camera run on this sight for minutes on end. As a result, we find ourselves squirming in our seats, hoping to see this person relieved of their torment, whether through rescue or even death. This is only one of the countless examples of the viciousness inflicted on these people. As I watched it, I couldn’t help but think that despite the terrible sequences we’re exposed to here, it doesn’t come close to the kind of nightmares that happened in real life.
While many bad things occur, what keeps us watching is the struggle of the main character to hold on to any glimmer of hope. Solomon Northup (played exquisitely by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man, an accomplished violinist living with his family in upstate New York in the 1800s. Falsely coerced by a job opportunity, Solomon was kidnapped in Washington D.C., given the name “Platt,” and sold into slavery in the Deep South. From there, Solomon (as well as every other black slave) had to fight to survive, but what does that entail? He is faced with a number of moral issues: should he keep his head down and not say anything, or should he run and try to escape? Is he willing to do anything to stay alive, even if it means inflicting pain on other slaves at the order of his white masters?
Solomon’s odyssey brings him to various good and bad people, both white and black. The script (by John Ridley, based on the real Solomon Northup’s book of the same name) paints many characters in gray tones. Take for example Benedict Cumberbatch’s Master Ford, a plantation owner who tries to develop a kinship with his workers, but whose backbone lacks any kind of strength. Or Brad Pitt’s character Bass, a Canadian abolitionist who expresses hesitation when Solomon asks him for help. We clearly see how some characters must act a certain way, or else their own life could be at stake. This includes Solomon himself. His relationship with fellow slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is a tragic one, because they both understand their desperate situation, but have very little power to change it. But let’s not fool ourselves. Under the protection of religion and state rights, slave traders and plantation owners treated slaves not like people, but as property.
Of all the characters, the most despicable is Michael Fassbender’s Edwin Epps. Fassbender delivers an amazing performance as the hard-edged, Bible-thumping, hate-filled slave owner. Not since Ralph Fiennes’s turn as Amon Goeth in Schindler’s List (1993) have we seen such an incarnation of evil. I wonder how Fassbender was able to dig within himself to find such a terrible person. Epps controls his slaves with savagery, finding any excuse to use his whip. A slave not picking enough weight in cotton is reason enough for a lashing. Epps torments his workers to the point of being a masochist, even having everyone dance in the middle of the night for his own pleasure. He is set up as a barometer to test Solomon’s resolve. Solomon is a strong and smart man, but faced against such a wicked person as Epps, we question if Solomon’s endurance can last under such immense strain.
12 Years A Slave is an incredible story of a man who clung to the hope of returning to his family, and used it to push away the horrible world he was forced into. This is not an easy film, but it is necessary to see. Many people may believe that because slavery ended generations ago, it is no longer an issue. That couldn’t be further from the truth. The ramifications of the time are still being felt today. It was the darkest period of this country’s history, and it must never be forgotten.