Dir. Steve McQueen. U.S.A. U.K.  2013.

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Co-produced by Brad Pitt and written by John Ridley, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who lived in Saratoga Springs, New York and was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery in the South which he endured for twelve long years. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northrup does not simply relate his story but makes us party to his experience and we feel the lashes as if they were welts on our own back. The film opens with Solomon as a slave cutting sugar cane on a large plantation. It then flashes back to a happier time in New York where he is a violinist, living quite comfortably with his wife and children.

Always eager to improve his means, he accepts a job from two nattily dressed white men to play violin in a traveling circus. After a night of good food and good drink in a Washington, DC restaurant, however, Solomon wakes up the next morning in chains and learns that he has been sold as a slave and transported to New Orleans. While he experiences physical pain, the emotional pain of separation from his wife and children is even more devastating.

After a cynical trafficker (Paul Giamatti) auctions his naked “products,” Solomon, now renamed Platt, is transported to a plantation in central Louisiana where he and Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a young mother cruelly separated from her two children, are sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), the only slaveowner in the film depicted with a modicum of humanity. When Platt retaliates against the sadistic overseer, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), however, he is hung from a tree on a rope where he remains for hours while other field hands ignore him and go about their business and only escapes death when Ford returns and cuts him down.

Ford, however, is forced to liquidate his debts and sells him to the sadistic and hypocritical Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who lashes slaves if they fail to meet the quota of the day picking cotton or just to assert his authority, yet sleeps with the most productive field slave, Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o in a shattering performance. Their relationship is known to his wife (Sarah Paulson) and, because of her jealousy and Edwin’s guilt, Patsey suffers more than others. In a scene that will be talked about for a long time, Platt is forced at gunpoint to whip Patsey, a whipping that continues for what seems an obscene length of time.

If we were able to reassure ourselves up to that point that it is only a movie, the moment we hear the thunderous lash of the whip against Patsey’s back over and over again, we know that there is no comforting escape mechanism.  Though Platt never despairs, it is only when a traveling white carpenter (Brad Pitt) from Canada with strong abolitionist views hears his story that the look in his eye turns from resignation to a glimmer of hope. Though slavery was part of a worldwide system of economic exploitation, 12 Years a Slave is not about slavery as an institution. This is Northrup’s story and if you think it is filled with exaggerated stereotypes, consider Northrup’s own words:

“I can speak of slavery only so far as it came under my own observation”, he explains, “only so far as I have known and experienced it in my own person. My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts: to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages and fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or a severer bondage.” Though Platt, like the others, is a victim, Ejiofor’s moving performance so strongly enlists our support that we encompass his perseverance, dignity, and relentless struggle for his humanity as part of our own fight to be who we really are and to express it with love and without fear.

While 12 Years a Slave can be overwhelming, it is a welcome history lesson that films have heretofore neglected to tell, one that dispels the myth of the happy slave and the benevolent master. A riveting experience that conveys the agony of what it’s like to endure the debasement of one’s essential humanity, it is not pretty but, then again, the truth often isn’t. I don’t know if I will ever want to see it again, but I am certain I will not soon forget it.


Howard Schumann

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