‘12 Years A Slave’ Is Gut-Wrenching & Brilliant


Few recent movies hit as hard as 12 Years a Slave. Based on a memoir of Solomon Northup, written soon after the Civil War, it re-creates most of the horrors of slavery and in brutal, brilliant fashion. The movie is an anti-Gone with the Wind, a fiction in which all the slaves just loved “massa” and “missy.” Slavery is rendered in stark terms in this superb movie. Right now, I predict this film will win the Oscar for best film, and probably the ones for best actor and director. I will not soon forget this movie.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a happily married man with children, a violinist from New York and a free man when he got a good job offer in Washington, D.C. Lured down there for a job interview, he was drugged and awoke to find himself a slave. His protests were, of course, ignored by the Southerners, and he was taken in hand by the ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), a slave trader. A scene where he and other slaves are kept naked to be inspected in a fancy home’s parlor provides a brutal awakening to the horrors of being considered less than human. He is sold to his first owner, a rather pleasant if weak man named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who attempts at least a bit of decent treatment but is forced to finally sell him to Epps (Michael Fassbender), his final owner, a true monster.

Epps strings Northup up by neck with his toes barely touching the ground, knowing that if his toes do not hold out he will be dead. Epps treats his slaves as if they are nothing more than animals for his amusement, waking them up one night so they can dance to please him. Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young slave, is constantly raped and beaten by Epps and then mistreated by Epps’ horror of a wife (Sarah Paulson) because of her jealousy. But everything revolves around Northup as he fights to remember his happy time as a free man. Watching him scratch the name of his wife and children on his violin was a tender moment.

The cast is brilliant. Ejiofor, the center of the plot, manages to retain his dignity and moral strength through all of the horrors he endures. Without saying much, he uses his facial and body expressions to bring out all the tragedy of his situation. Nyong’o is also exceptional. A new actress, she brings both strength and pathos to her character. The white characters are a bit more stereotypical, although Fassbender is superb in a role that only exceptional acting prevents from being a cliché. Paulson as his wife is good but not on his level. A special round of applause should go to John Ridley, who wrote the screenplay from Northup’s memoirs, and particularly to British director Steve McQueen. Most of these people will be winning awards, and they will deserve them.

Movies and television about America’s “peculiar institution,” as slavery was called, have always faced issues because they reflect their times. Gone with the Wind, with its clearly pro-Southern viewpoint, in which blacks fit old-time stereotypes, was actually considered real history by some. Roots, the landmark TV miniseries, presented an entirely different picture, one that more clearly showed that time, although much of the actual story was not the true story of Alex Haley’s family.

This new film is blunt in its showing of horrors. Some people in the theater cried at parts, and there is one scene dealing with Patsey that is absolutely gut-wrenching.

Is this a true representation of what slavery was always like? No. Black historian W.E.B. DuBois in his landmark book Black Reconstruction in America pointed out that the majority of slaves lived on tiny farms, generally as one or two families belonging to a white family that was not much better off than they. But the nightmare of being dehumanized (and the institution dehumanized whites as well as blacks, although blacks were far, far worse off) still existed for all.

As a film, I urge everyone to see it. It is not for small children, although as they get older, I am certain at least parts of it will be shown in school. But we should all see it, both as an appreciation of a brilliant piece of moviemaking and a chance to look, without flinching too much, at a horrible time in our history.