’12 Years a Slave’ shines through the pain

From Birth of a Nation to The Color Purple to Roots, the antebellum South has been extensively explored in film and television for nearly a century.


12 Years a Slave
Rating: R
Running time: 133 min.
Stars: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Benedict Cumberbatch

And yet when we thought we’ve seen it all — that no one could originally capture the pain, suffering and bigotry of the slavery era — Steve McQueen shows us otherwise.

The British video artist turned innovative auteur has delivered a subtle motion picture with 12 Years a Slave, a heartbreaking meditation on our endless will to live.

Solomon Northrup’s true story is one almost too tragic to believe. A black man born into freedom carves a life out for himself like any other American citizen. He grows up in the early 1800s, marries young, raises a family, procures a job as a violinist, and has a home in Saratoga Springs, New York.

When his wife and two children decide to go visit their grandmother for the weekend, Solomon takes a quick job playing violin on the road with two ostensibly good circus men, Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killam). After a night of drinking with the aforementioned colleagues, he wakes up chained and perplexed.

Soon after a pair of racist Southern boys inform him that he’s a runaway from Georgia. Not Solomon Northup. Not a reputable violinist from up north. Not a free man.

His identity is erased, freedom lost. Sold to a plantation owner after plantation owner (until finally landing on the ruthless Edwin Epps) Solomon wishes to not merely survive, but live.

Tragically, no one can escape Epps’ scorn. A horrifying slave owner with a fundamental misunderstanding of the scripture (from which he quotes religiously, though satanically), Fassbender creates a malevolent master like we’ve never seen before.

Lash after lash, Epps’ – with no remorse – makes life a living hell for his slaves, especially a young woman named Patsy (played by Lupita Nyong’o).

Epps has taken a certain licentious liking to Patsy – a slave better then the rest when it comes to picking cotton and obeying orders. Although it seemed impossible, Epps sinks to a new low in the spectrum of humanity.

He’s not even human. Hell, he’s not even Satan. The vitriol and repulsion one feels when watching Epps whip, rape, demoralize, and dehumanize his slaves is a feeling few films can evoke.

12 Years a Slave greatly benefits, as a work of dramatic art, from these multi-dimensional characters crafted by multi-talented actors.

Nyongo’o, born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, and educated at Yale, is a young actress with infinite possibilities. That she’s able to not merely contend but thrive with the film’s experienced and trained cast of actors and actresses, from Paul Giamatti to Sarah Paulson to Benedict Cumberbatch, is something to be marveled.

Of course, the crowning achievement is Chiwetel Ejiofor, a thespian who transcends space and time, cinema and reality by playing a slave of great courage and even greater intellect.

It is Northrup’s eternal desire to be free, to return to his previous life that propels us to stay along with him on this journey. Unfortunately we know his wishes can’t be granted — things never do quite go back to the way they were.

Solomon’s bout with slavery, as we know heading into the film ends after 12 years (he wrote a book, which the film is based, on the experiences in 1853) will stay with him forever.

Now, to break up the rhythm of this review, permit me a moment of your time to address the hoopla surrounding McQueen’s third in a series of excellent films (the first two being Hunger and Shame).

12 Years a Slave will undoubtedly win a plethora of Oscars come February. Unfortunately, a great deal of avid moviegoers perceives the Oscar potential of a film to be a comment on the movie’s conventionality or banality — qualities affluent, primarily Caucasian Academy voters generally go for.

While that assumption may be reasonable, it’s also entirely irrelevant to actually what’s on the screen and what’s in John Ridley’s script.

12 Years a Slave is the rare “Oscar caliber” film that deserves to win every accolade it’s nominated for. But more importantly, 12 Years a Slave deserves to be experienced. To experience the film is to experience the power of filmmaking.