In “12 Years A Slave,” the compelling, heart-wrenching film adapted from the autobiographical narrative of the same name, Solomon Northup is stripped of identity and freedom after he is kidnapped, shipped south and sold into slavery in 1841. The film delves into the very fabric of slavery: morally, physically and emotionally.
Director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) adapts the narrative for the screen, weaving a complex tale led by the exquisite performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor (“2012”), Michael Fassbender (“Prometheus”) and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o.
Solomon Northup (Ejiofor) was a free black man living in upstate New York with his wife, son and daughter in 1841. After his capture, Northup had to suppress his true, free self and conform to a new slave identity in order to survive in antebellum Louisiana.
His status as a black man in the white slaveholding South defines him as a slave, no matter who he claims to be.
Outwardly, Northup becomes Platt, a quiet field hand and carpenter; inwardly, he struggles to reconcile his desire to escape and his need for survival.
At every turn the film asks, “How far would you go to stay alive?” Northup can never display his ability to read or write and can surely never speak his mind.
Further, he must commit terrible acts himself to remain alive, from turning a blind eye to much of the cruelty inflicted upon other slaves, to whipping a slave woman himself.
Moviegoers may expect the horrific acts of violence committed against Northup and other enslaved people. The film goes further, however, depicting violence as a part of the slave’s everyday life. I was entirely shaken by the natural and constant expectation of violence.
When Northup is nearly hanged from a tree and subsequently spends an entire day delicately balancing on his toes with a rope around his neck, the enslaved people simply carry on about their work. In the background of one scene, Northup and other slow cotton pickers are whipped while slaves in the forefront of the shot pick cotton, unfazed by the brutal punishment and blood-curdling cries.
“12 Years” demonstrates how slavery brought out the worst in everyone: white, black, women and men. Slavemaster Epps (Fassbender) rapes the enslaved woman, Patsey (Nyong’o) and the mistress of the plantation, Mary (Sarah Paulson), horrifically abuses Patsey as a result.
Mary, presumably a southern belle, throws a decanter at Patsey’s head, beats her and refuses to give Patsey soap.
In the movie’s climactic scene, Northup beats Patsey to shreds, after complying with his master’s orders, which were spurred by Epps’ jealousy and Mary’s rage. Slavery destroys any and every semblance of morality.
Aside from bursts of violence, “12 Years” depicts slavery as hopelessly monotonous, as slaves work every day of their lives with no end in sight. Death is the only saving grace for a slave, and the slave shall die, whether he is brutally killed or worked to death.
The Christian religion acts as both a threat and an opiate to the slave population, for a servant shall obey his master or be beaten with many stripes, but with death comes heavenly freedom.
With an excellent cast and storyline, “12 Years a Slave” deeply interrogates the enslaved man and woman, as well as the master and mistress.
No stone was left unturned in this film, for “12 Years” masterfully depicts the complex physical, psychological and emotional plight of the slave.
“12 Years” gives the nation the opportunity to face its history, and, importantly, the story is voiced by an enslaved black man, in his own words. This film gives a voice to the millions of people silenced by slavery and lost to history.
— By Jordie Davies
Photo courtesy of River Road Entertaiment