Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is based on Solomon Northup’s horrific memoir of being drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 33. Although written eight years before the Civil War, Northup’s first-person account of losing his family and his freedom resonates with the 21st century in unexpected ways.
When the movie begins, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor in one of the most emotionally grueling performances you will ever see) is a free man with a wife and three children living in Saratoga, N.Y. If you were a black American during the time of slavery, being born in the North was not enough to ensure your safety, even if you were highly educated and played violin. After being taken in by a ruse, Northup wakes up to a nightmare, chained to the wall inside a slave-dungeon holding cell in – of all places – Washington D.C.
See more of Rick's reviews at the Internet Movie Database (IMDb).
Northup writes, “I had not then learned the measure of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain.” Of the 100 or so first-person accounts of U.S. slavery, “12 Years” is the only one composed by an individual who was born a free man.
The life of a slave is depicted in all its inglorious, institutionalized depravity. When Northup tries to explain his true identity to a captor, the result is the beginning of a series of beatings, flesh-ripping floggings and ongoing psychic torture.
Some scenes are almost too ghastly to watch; the fact that the behavior on screen approximates actual incidents and attitudes of a democratic nation – not a totalitarian state – is beyond comprehension.
Stripped of his money and papers that prove he’s a free man, Northup is bought and sold like a head of steer and finally shipped to Louisiana. Cattle are one thing, but slaves were often treated even worse. Farm animals might suffer neglect, but the disturbing historical truth is that, under certain conditions, humans have inflicted the most sadistic pain and humiliation on each other, often in the name of some "ideal" or religious personage.
Northup’s first owner, Freeman (Paul Giamatti), sells him to the more benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose brutality is limited to his view of blacks as chattel.
Northup would not be so lucky at the plantation of Edwin and Mistress Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson), where their twisted interpersonal dysfunction poisons the master-slave dynamic even further.
Swept up into this hellishly toxic morass is Patsey, heartbreakingly played by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o.
While it’s against the law for slaves to learn to read and write, playing a musical instrument is tolerated – but in this context, even the joy of music is made perverse.
Hans Zimmer’s superb score ranges from idyllic to darkly electronic, while Nicholas Britell’s black neo-spirituals have possibly unintended consequences. Heard and seen in context of Northup’s world only deepens one’s appreciation of what is already one of the most powerful, intensely passionate folk idioms in the world. You may never hear Black gospel music the same way again.
While Brad Pitt’s role as Bass seems like it was written in to make the producer look good, that is apparently not the case.
See playdates and locations for “12 Years a Slave” HERE.
Enjoy this article? Receive e-mail alerts when new articles become available. Just click on the "Subscribe" button above.