12 Years A Slave ★★★★
Near the beginning of Solomon Northup’s autobiography, “12 Years a Slave”, he writes, “My object is, to give a candid and truthful statement of facts.” That is exactly what Steve McQueen has given us with his beautiful and unshakable adaptation of Northup’s biography. There are no swelling manipulative crescendos of sentimental music that would infuse falseness into a film that serves as a window into the darkest period of American history. “Slavery is an evil that should befall no man,” says Solomon Northup near the film’s end. And with that, McQueen has meant to show us the very nature of this evil and let us determine for ourselves how we are to deal with the societal implications we as a nation are still recovering from today.
Our Solomon Northup, masterfully played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, was born a free man, husband to Anne, father to Margaret and Alonzo. There he lived in Saratoga, New York until he was abducted and sold into slavery. The shock of his capture comes as sudden to us as it would be to Northup. After being deceived into playing violin for a short two-week gig, he was bound in shackles in the dark, damp dungeon of a Washington slave pen. A man named Burch enters the pen calling Solomon by the all too common derogatory “boy”, and insists that Northup is not a free man but “nothin’ but a Georgia runaway.” Northup declares that he is a free man and is beaten with a stick bored with holes, still protests, and is beaten further. This, one of the more brutal and unrelenting scenes in the film, thrusts the audience down fully into the hell of slavery with which we will sit for the remaining two hours. Northup’s cries for mercy rise with the camera out of the slave pen and we see the Capitol building in the background with the rising smoke of the industrial economy.
Passing through the hands of different slave owners, Solomon’s journey progresses from bad to outright sadistic. The roles of Freeman, Ford, Tibeats and Epps (Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender) are part of what make this film a great one. We see so many conflicting societal views of slavery within these characters. Are these men all truly evil or are some merely acting in a way that society forced upon them, or are some acting out of financial debts required from them? 12 Years a Slave is an indictment on both the violent slavery depicted in Epps, but also forms of patriarchal slavery seen in Ford and various other characters in the film. When first arriving off the boat into New Orleans, a friend of Solomon’s named Ray Clemens is “freed” to his owner, who seems a gentle enough man, but Clemens returns to him as a dog returns to its master. He receives nothing but a pat on the head.
Tibeats is an incredibly small man, but Paul Dano has crafted a character that is utterly fascinating to watch. Various instances in the film we see a group of African American men standing before the overseer of the plantation explaining the day’s job. They stand, staring blankly as white racist rhetoric is inscribed on their minds forcing them to submit and live in fear. Tibeats has them clap their hands providing a beat for him to sing about the consequences for running away. They’re trapped. They dare not admit they can read or write. As is common in other slave narratives, literacy is equated with freedom.
In this film we observe and observe and observe fact after fact after fact. One harrowing scene Freeman, whose "sentimentalities do not exceed the width of a coin," takes Ford on tour around his house as Ford is looking to purchase a few more slaves. Some are clothed, but most stand there stark and naked. Their faces remain expressionless. They are like mannequins at a shopping mall. Ford purchases Solomon and a woman named Eliza, who as a result of this, is separated from her two children.
Once reaching the plantation, Eliza (who has not stopped weeping for days) and Solomon have a confrontation that is masterfully written by John Ridley. Whether they’ve protested in honorable or dishonorable ways, they both are consigned to this lot. One beautiful moment is in Solomon’s grieving process with the names Anne, Margaret, and Alonzo etched on the bottom of his violin. He nuzzles his violin underneath his chin as he hopes and wonders if he will ever see his family again.
How much can be said about Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o)? Both give mesmerizing performances and I can’t imagine anyone winning supporting actress outside of Nyong’o.
Northup lived as a slave for twelve years, but the movie does not reveal where in the timeline we are throughout the runtime. Near the end, there is a close up of Northup’s face as he stares, glossy-eyed at the horizon. His eyes break the fourth wall, staring directly at us. It is a moment of intense power demanding our empathy.
McQueen’s film is unrelenting but beautiful. The first time I watched it I did not cry during the entire movie. Never have I experienced the catharsis I did as the credits rolled. I was paralyzed and tensely bottled up my emotions until I was able to have a release after everything was over. Trembling I left the theatre and even cried on the drive home. I wept for Patsey and the many who were never able to taste freedom—for those who were born and died in the hell of slavery. The film is a must see. You will not see a better film this year.