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12 Years a Slave

An unflinching look at the Old South

Oct. 27, 2013
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The nightmare of 12 Years a Slave begins when Solomon Northrup awakens on the hard floor of a cell, his wrists and ankles chained. Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black in pre-Civil War Saratoga Springs, N.Y., an educated man with a wife and children, maintaining a middle class life through his skill on violin. His white neighbors address him as “Mr.” and he seems unaware of the precariousness of free blacks until false benefactors lure him to the slave city of Washington, D.C.; passing out after being drugged, he awakens in a warehouse where slaves are kept before shipment to the South. “Sold down the river” was no idle turn of phrase in those years.

12 Years a Slave is directed by Britain’s Steve McQueen (Shame) from Northrup’s account of his enslavement, a book that ranked in anti-slavery literature with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Historians have verified the main points of Northrup’s autobiography. John Ridley’s screenplay hews to the spirit and form of the book, preserving the archaic diction and courtly gravity of expression and dispelling romanticized Gone with the Wind notions of the antebellum South. 12 Years a Slave is an indictment of slavery on moral grounds. Solomon isn’t content to feel sorry for himself; his sympathy embraces all fellow slaves and even touches some of the masters and overseers. Even the best souls are corroded by the immense evil of the system at the root of all social relations in the slave states. As for the worst people, slavery affords an excuse for acting out the most heinous impulses.

A British actor of Nigerian heritage, Etjiofor’s eyes and face mirror the crushing dismay of Solomon’s realization that he has lost his family, his freedom and everything he held dear. There is no over-emoting. After a brutal paddling from a slave trader, Solomon understands that insisting on his status as a “free Negro” will only incite more violence. He learns to keep his intelligence under wraps.

Solomon’s experiences run the gamut. The overseers are often insecure in their status and inflate their self-esteem by brutalizing the slaves. John Tibeats (Paul Dano) nearly lynches Solomon for defending himself, but is thwarted by the head overseer—not for humanitarian concerns but to protect the property of Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford carries on, despite being troubled by the world he inhabits. He is saddened to witness children being torn from the arms of their screaming mother at the slave market, but is content to live off the labor of slaves who wade into the green thicket of the sugar cane fields, chopping at the stalks with sharp machetes to harvest the crop. Ford even preaches the gospel to his slaves, including the message that the least shall become first. The slaves listen intently to an idea that appears subversive of a world in bondage.

Solomon’s next owner also quotes scripture, but only the passages urging obedience to the Lord, “and I’m your lord,” Master Epps insists. Michael Fassbender rivals Etjiofor in a memorable performance as Epps, a crazy-eyed, raging alcoholic and half-impotent sociopath. Epps is obsessed with the hard-working slave Patsey (Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o), but his affections are expressed with violence more than tenderness. Mrs. Epps is appalled with her husband, and behaves appallingly, tormenting Patsey at every turn while berating Master Epps in front of the slaves. Solomon stares in sullen silence, playing violin at the parties in the big white house, unable to protect Patsey or himself from the prevailing sadism. His only hope is to maintain dignity and determination in the midst of hell.

12 Years a Slave includes several extraordinary small performances. The marvelous character actor Paul Giamatti plays a cynical slave dealer who offers refreshments to customers in his elegant showroom; Brad Pitt is the itinerant Canadian carpenter, a stranger in a strange land, who decides to help Solomon.

The film avoids sentimental, feel-good clichés and heart-swelling melodrama. McQueen regards the drama of survival against unspeakable cruelty as sufficient. Some scenes are hard to watch for their undisguised depiction of the lash on human flesh. 12 Years a Slave is among the greatest—perhaps the greatest—portraits of American slavery for its refusal to blink in the face of horror.


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