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Review: 12 Years a Slave – America’s Ugliest Institution Revisited

5 years ago by John Eberli


“There is no sin here. Man does as he pleases with his property.”

— Edwin Epps

12 Years a Slave is a devastating film that is charting new cinematic territory. While movies about slavery have grown in abundance over the years and the theme has become ubiquitous as an easy way for Hollywood to mine drama, British director Steve McQueen’s haunting adaptation of Solomon Northup’s autobiography brings a new unflinching honesty to the table.

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The film chronicles the journey of Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living in New York who is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. Separated from his wife and children, Solomon must learn how to negotiate survival while attempting to hold onto some shred of dignity, a feat that becomes increasingly precarious as the years go on. Although he must try and hide his true identity and background from his new keepers, his cultured manners and education often betray him, alternately provoking favoritism and resentment in his masters.

During the course of the film Solomon undergoes a transformation. As a freeman in New York, Solomon earned his living as a virtuosic violinist and took pride in the admiration of his white audience, whom he regarded as his equals. The first scene Solomon appears in New York, we are introduced to him by a series of extreme close-ups on his violin as he tunes the strings and prepares to perform. The violin becomes a metaphor for Solomon himself. When Solomon earns the favor of his first master, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), for demonstrating his value through intelligence and profitable counsel, Ford returns his violin to him. At this stage, Solomon takes extreme joy in this reclamation as it is a reminder of his family, his pride, and his former life. However, as time rolls on and Solomon witnesses and is even forced to partake in innumerable human atrocities, the violin loses the meaning it once had for him. In one of the most haunting scenes, Mr. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender)—a deranged alcoholic planter and Solomon’s sadistic new master—forces his slaves to act merry and perform a ritualized mock-soiree. The slaves dance like lifeless marionettes as Solomon plays the violin with an expression of abject horror on his face. These humiliating rituals allowed white slave-owners to pretend their slaves were happy as moral justification (or perhaps in some cases were simply fuel for their own amusement). Later, Solomon is forced by Master Epps in a drunken, alcohol-induced rage to whip his prized female slave Patsey (Oscar-worthy performance by Lupita Nyong’o) nearly to death simply because she went next door to get some soap. She complained that her own stink made her gag and that all she wanted was to be clean. This scene is easily one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch in a movie. Afterwards, we are treated to a bookend series of close-ups as a shaken Solomon attempts to tune his violin, only this time a string breaks. In a rage Solomon destroys the instrument, ripping it into little tiny pieces with his bare hands and letting the pieces lay scattered on the floor. This marks the final shattering of Solomon’s former identity. Later, when an older slave dies from exhaustion working in the cotton fields and the slaves themselves are left to bury him, they sing a biblically-themed song about the river Jordan. For a while, Solomon stares silently in horror, but then he joins his voice with the others and pours all his emotion into the song. It is the crucial moment in which Solomon allows himself to finally become one with his slave brothers and sisters. Up until this moment Solomon kept his identity separate from the other slaves, believing himself to be fundamentally different from them. Finally, Solomon accepts that, free or enslaved, these are his people and they are all suffering together.

12 Years a Slave methodically catalogues the various horrors of slavery as it follows Northup’s own personal journey. It explores family separation as one poor black woman is sold separately from her children after begging Mr. Ford to buy all of them together. She weeps through the entirety of the film despite Mrs. Ford’s token sympathy and flippant comment that she “will forget about [them] soon enough.” At a slave auction held in a rich white person’s home, a finicky slave broker (Paul Giamatti) shows off his human wares as if at a car dealership, driving home the dehumanization of slavery. The intertwining relationship between sex and violence inherent in slavery is also on full display. Mr. Epps leeringly dubs Patsey the “Queen of the Fields,” both for her supreme efficiency as a cotton-picker and for the fact that she is his favorite sexual pastime. He violently rapes her throughout the film and as a slave she is not even allowed to protest. This creates further domestic problems as Mrs. Epps is fully aware of what is going on. When she violently assaults Patsey and demands Edwin sell her immediately, her husband refuses and casually lets her know exactly where she stands. Her jealousy and rage often boil over to the detriment of the slaves, who reap the brunt of her fury. Patsey herself demonstrates the extent of her own suffering when she wakes Solomon up in the middle of the night and asks him to drown her in the river. At the end of the film when a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) working as a carpenter at Epps’ plantation helps Solomon reclaim his freedom, he stares back at Patsey as he is driven back to his family in a carriage. Although Solomon managed to save himself in the end, his was a very rare case and there is a palpable sense of guilt and despair as he abandons Patsey and the others to their fate.

What makes 12 Years a Slave a remarkable entry into the pantheon of cinema is the way it handles its relentlessly cruel subject matter. McQueen’s camera never shies away from the brutality of slavery. Most films documenting the greatest stain on American history have had a tendency to gloss over the worst parts, or to clean up the reality, or to otherwise distance themselves in some way from the horror depicted. Even Quentin Tarantino’s recent Django Unchained, while certainly reflecting on some of the more horrific realities of slavery, chose to filter it through a revisionist Blaxploitation/Spaghetti Western revenge story, replete with stylized violence and a hefty injection of black humor. Unlike its predecessors, 12 Years a Slave preserves a sober view of slavery without Hollywood bravado or political posturing. Rather than recoil along with the audience, McQueen allows his camera to linger on the ugliness for an uncomfortably long time. In one early pivotal scene, after Solomon refuses to yield to a psychotic overseer (disturbingly portrayed by Paul Dano) and ends up beating him with his own whip, the overseer and a few thugs string Solomon up by his neck and attempt to hang him from a tree. He is saved by another overseer, who observes that his master Mr. Ford, who favors Solomon, would not sanction the destruction of his valuable property. Afterwards, Solomon is left barely balancing on his tiptoes as the noose around his neck holds him suspended leaving him barely able to breathe. The camera remains fixated on this disturbing image for over a minute while slaves in the background go about their business without acknowledging him, before Mr. Ford himself arrives to cut the rope.

It’s true that this is not an easy film to watch. But it is, in many ways, necessary. Slavery is not just something that happened that can or should be forgotten. We need to confront our own history and accept the evils our ancestors participated in or were subject to, lest those evils ever threaten to resurface. We need to confront that history to understand where we came from and how we got to where we are now. Most importantly, we need to grieve for the trampled humanity the institution of slavery wrought, both on those who perpetrated it and those who suffered under its yoke. This beautiful, painful film is a reminder that slavery should never be swept under the rug.


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