12 Years a Slave

| December 23, 2013

Any person with a pulse couldn’t stand to sit through more than two hours of a sweeping, intense, overwhelming, gripping movie such as 12 Years a Slave and not walk out the theater, simply angry and speechless, but at the same time needing to express what you just felt even days after feeling it. Chiwetel Ejiofor is splendid in his role of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Upon further research into the book upon which this movie is based, Northup’s 1853 autobiography Twelve Years a Slave, I learned that Northup’s father, Mintus, was owned by a slaveholder, and when the slaveholder died, his will dictated that Mintus be set free. Years later in July 1808, Solomon was born, and in 1841 he is tricked away from his way of living, with a wife and two children, and ends up in Washington, D.C., in the hands of bounty hunters looking for runaway slaves. He is then sold into slavery, trying desperately to claw his way back to freedom. 12 Years a Slave presents the brutality, reality and darkness of the business of slavery in America in ways that I haven’t seen before.

Northup spends 12 years trying to convince two slaveholders that he is, in fact, an educated, free man, but his pleas fall on deaf ears—because a slave doesn’t read or write and certainly can’t profess to have lived as a free man. What ensues during his captivity is a terrible, horrific existence, first under the employ of Benedict Cumberbatch, who is kind of sympathetic to Northup, whose name has now been changed to Platt.

But Northup, determined as he is, gets too rebellious when dealing with the farm overseers and eventually he is faced with a noose and tree. This scene is so vivid and haunting, as Northup hangs from a tree, swinging, trying to keep his wits and sanity, as well as maintain his very existence, while everyone, including other slaves, just walks right past him. Eventually, as the sun comes down, the slaveholder cuts him loose but sells him to another slaveholder, because it “isn’t safe to keep Platt any longer.”

The second slaveholder Edwin Epps is played by Michael Fassbinder, who is the most disgustingly sadistic of the two. Epps and his wife use religion to convince the slaves that the cruelty of being whipped is found in the Bible. Epps has an obsession with a female slave named Patsey, who is played by Lupita Nyongo’o. Patsey picks cotton to the tune of more than 500 pounds a day, but she isn’t rewarded for this dexterity; she is raped by Epps and scorned by Epps’ wife. Because of Epps’ fondness for Patsey, she is subjected to such hell that she once asks Northup to“take her to river and place her head underwater until there is no more life in her.” Northup doesn’t oblige her and questions why she would want to put herself in such despair. But despair and hopelessness face them both, as well as the other slaves consigned to a life of beatings, disrespect and humiliation on this plantation in Louisiana.

Finally, there is hope, in Canadian abolitionist Brad Pitt who, as the producer of this film directed by black London-born filmmaker Steve McQueen, brought it to fruition. Northup finally has a listening, compassionate ear in Pitt, who plays Bass and who isn’t aligned with the cause of slavery. He delivers a note on behalf of Northup that in the end compels the sheriff and those that know Northup as a free man to approach Epps and snatch Northup away, to the dismay and defiant rants of Epps but to the excitement of those watching the film.

I have read on online message boards people comparing 12 Years a Slave to Django Unchained. Believe me, there is nothing to compare. Those folks who so easily laughed through Django Unchained, which I felt was Hollywood’s and the director’s parody around slavery, will have to grow up fast in order to stomach the unimaginable–but real– injustices depicted in 12 Years a Slave. Other cast members include Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti, Michael K. Williams, among others. The movie is in wide release

About the Author:

Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is an editor, writer and film critic in Chicago. She is the author of "Old School Adventures from Englewood--South Side of Chicago" and the proud parent of "the smart rapper"--chemist-turned-rapper, turned humanitarian...Psalm One!
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