Slavery in the history of the United States of America is a difficult topic. People often don't know how to address it or simply don't want to, and they end up either saying something out of turn or feeling perhaps that they've been misunderstood if they do speak about it or they simply just don't really think much about it, leaving what they may feel to be entirely "in the past," in the past.
But the effects of slavery on nearly every spectrum of social strata in society are lasting, and they can be seen vividly in the way people treat each other today. Racist attitudes and bigotry have filtered down generation to generation, and senses of entitlement among ruling classes often dull our sensitivity towards anyone and everyone who we deem to be different from ourselves, and thus deserving of some sense of being treated as "lesser than."
When broken down and revealed simply for what it is (and what it was, back in the slave trade days of America in the 1800s), slavery is quite honestly, hard to accept. To think of one person owning another is unequivocally wrong in no certain terms beyond just that. There can be no natural argument for a way in which any man or woman has any sense of ownership over another woman or man. And this natural truth seems, to the logical mind, to be so self-evident, that when going into a discussion of slavery, let alone a 134-minute film about it, there almost needs to be a sense of what you may associate with suspension of disbelief, such as one does when entering a fantasy film or realms of the spectacular and otherworldly.
But the crashing realization that "this is something that actually happened" comes into view, and as you sit there and take it all in—that stark, cold reality—it is so heartbreaking, it makes you feel nearly ashamed to be in the same species as people "who did that." This feeling then leads to a further examination of the ways in which you may have wronged your fellow humankind, and in all, it's a powerful experience—one that extends beyond simply thinking about issues of race and human kindness and evil and despair and hope. A thought may occur that should daily be on one's mind, of how to treat others as one would wish to be treated, and how the irremovable stain of slavery on America's past must never be forgotten.
As a film, 12 Years a Slave is so much more than this. In and of itself, it's a work of art. It's not merely a re-telling of something that everyone "should" watch (though it goes without saying that they should). It's also very artfully made. The story, based on the 1853 autobiography, is that of an African American man, Solomon Northup (played by the outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor), a born-free citizen of New York, who was captured and taken to the south and sold into slavery. Northup's narrative had largely fallen into obscurity before resurfacing and being studied in the 1960s. This film rendition of his life is truly something magnificent and terrible to behold, and it seriously calls into question humankind's ability (and desire) to choose good over evil.
From the start, you're brought into his life with some circus performers offering him a job to go travel and work with them, as Solomon is a skilled violinist. As he leaves his family for this alleged gig, one cannot help but feel a sickness knowing what's to come.
He's brought to Washington D.C., where he's sold, then on a ship to Louisiana, where he'll live and work enslaved for the next twelve years.
The scene of the auction, where people come to look over the slaves and pick them out is utterly harrowing to watch. Although the film has its share of hard-to-watch violence, it's scenes like this that carry a phenomenal weight to them: the looks on their terrified faces, the auctioneer Theophilus Freeman's (Paul Giamatti) callous shouts, Solomon anxiously playing the violin to change the mood and demonstrate he is a skilled, educated man. Children are being separated from their mother, from their siblings. It's a brutal scene, and above all, it's incredibly dehumanizing. People are being treated and sold as less valuable than livestock. It's disgusting.
The ship ride, where those sold are bonded by chains and scuttled together in captivity, people dying of smallpox and other diseases, or killed by the crew if they misbehave, is a loathsome and dark place to be. Solomon manages to stay alive through the journey, where he then is at one of his first plantation stays, with a Master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who, as far as slave-owners go, could be worse. There he also encounters a middle management type boss, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who makes it difficult as an audience member to not want to jump through the screen and knock out. But Solomon's hopes of aid he may receive in having his true identity revealed and thus setting him free are dashed, and his stay under Master Ford is brief.
Where the bulk of Solomon's life in slavery is spent is under the cold, brutal, and unyielding force of Master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his equally vicious wife, Mistress Mary Epps (Sarah Paulson). Master Epps is a demon incarnate. His humanity is hidden beneath layers and layers of hatred and malice and cruelty and belief that he is right about his ability to own his slaves as property and do with them what he will. And the moments at which we see his stony resolve crack and crumble under this facade of belief in some "divine, God-given right," are those in which he only more viscerally and more cruelly beats and torments those he views as his property.
One woman in particular, whom Master Epps favors because of her tragic beauty as well as her incredible work output, is the lonesome and heartbreaking Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o, in what may deservedly, almost surely win her an Oscar for what is unbelievably her first big screen role). Patsey picks more cotton than all the other workers around her, men and woman, by a long shot. It's hard to tell if she thinks this may spare her at least in part from Master Epps's cruelty and maybe from him raping and beating her, as it seems to only spur him on. But she nevertheless goes on in her work. Nearly all the scenes in which we see Patsey are among the saddest in the film. When she begs Solomon to end her life, when Master Epps forces Solomon to beat her in front of everyone else, when she is found having sneaked out to go seek out a measly bar of soap to wash (at least in part) the stain of her surroundings and the stink of her own filthy, overworked body and is subsequently punished for this basic action of humanity, the need to wash...it's almost more than one can bear.
The malignant nature of both Master and Mistress Epps is an interesting and borderline psychotic role to watch. How anyone could be filled with so much hatred in their heart, hatred of themselves, hatred of those around them, and just plain white hot villainy, it's quite hard to comprehend. It comes more clearly into view when taken in the circumstances in which they find themselves. They come across as equally trapped in their wretched lives as those whom they enslave, no happier or closer to freedom from their circumstances. But this reality garners them no praise or mercy, for their actions cannot be undone. Each time Master Epps cites the Bible as he doles out lashings, his monstrous nature only comes further more clearly into view, as does his vast need for repentance.
Eventually Solomon happens upon a Canadian worker Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who plays an instrumental role in Solomon's search to regain his freedom. From start to finish, 12 Years a Slave is relentless, but it is a journey so well told, there is solace in knowing you're in the hands of a brilliant filmmaker.
Both director Steve McQueen and lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor are British, and though slavery in many forms has existed in a whole manner of times and places throughout our world's history, the story told herein is quintessentially American. McQueen masterfully taps into the reality of it all, while he demonstrates keen storytelling techniques and artful imagery along the way. The pain Solomon and others are going through is so very real, and it is contrasted against the stellar beauty of the backdrop of the story. The bayous and fields of Louisiana are, visually, incredibly stunning landscapes. It's astonishing to see such wonder being the setting for such evil. Its run time seems not at all drawn out, despite the horrific nature of what's presented; as a viewer you're drawn in immediately, and it's hard to believe when it's over that you just witnessed the depth of all you just saw. The film is not to be missed, and the lessons garnered are never to be forgotten.