Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave”, a brutal and shocking narrative on slavery and clearly a frontrunner for the Oscars this year opens in San Francisco Nov 1.
The 44-year-old British filmmaker is one of the most provocative film directors today, with disturbing film such as “Shame” (UK 2011) , a film on sex addiction and “Hunger” (UK/Ireland 2008) , a film on the hunger strike of the IRA leader Bobby Sands. His new film is about the roots of racism in America and an early history of slavery. There is nothing spared in this film about the atrocities of slavery and the treatment of Africans, and this is McQueen’s ambition.
McQueen has chosen to examine the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black engineer who is abducted in Washington DC in 1841. He had planned to be away on a short trip away from his home in Saratoga Springs New York to accompany musicians on his violin but is sold into slavery in the south. Leaving behind his wife and children, he is missing for 12 years. Being separated from his family is heart-wrenching, and we also see other families separated and sold off to white men who are property owners.
Solomon’s first home is with plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch.) It was a crime in the south to teach Africans to read and write, and Solomon who was educated didn't hide his talents from Ford but when one of his hired hands is threatened by his intelligence, a fight breaks out, and Solomon soon finds himself hanging from a tree near death. Hangings of slaves occur in the woods at random. He must be quickly sold by Ford to escape death and winds up with the vicious sociopathic alcoholic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) and his cruel wife (Sarah Paulson). One of her deeds is to throw a whiskey bottle at the young slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). She is jealous of her husband’s interest in her when the plantation slaves are invited into the manor to eat and dance. Epps continuously preys on Patsey and makes sure she doesn't run away.
Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong'o are the center of the film and their experiences represent the stories of other slaves. What happens to them is so horrible and vivid that it opens up a deep wound that has never healed in this country. The USA did not colonize Africa as Europe, but kidnapped Africans from their homes, then tortured and enslaved them in ships bound for America. Imported slaves made the country rich and as we see in the film, Africans toiled long hard hours in the sun working on plantations, living in deplorable housing. White men regularly raped young girls and women and beat and hung the men, deplorable realities captured in "12 Years a Slave".
Brad Pitt, who co-produced the film, has a pivotal role as Bass who sees Solomon as a man and who through his efforts helps to reunite him with his family. Solomon's story in American history mirrors countless tales of the atrocities of slavery, but McQueen's film digs deeper than ever before.