12 Years a Slave
An extraordinary man must rise to extraordinary circumstances
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor: Dancing on the Edge) was a man of fortunate birth. He wasn’t rich, or noble, just a black man born free in the time of slavery.
12 Years a Slave begins with the family enjoying a normal life in Saratoga, New York, where Solomon takes odd jobs and his wife works as a cook. Known in the community, they believe that they have nothing to fear from whites.
Solomon is also an exceptional fiddler, and that skill leads to a profitable job in Washington, D.C., performing with a circus troupe. Though nervous about venturing into territory where slavery is legal, Solomon trusts his employers and counts on a big payday.
His naivety is rewarded with brutality as he is beaten, kidnapped and sold into servitude. At a Louisiana plantation, he begins his new life as a sub-human who can be sold and resold on a whim. His only hope of freedom lies in the North. If he can get word of his location to his family and friends, they can force the government to command his release. But if his owners find out he can read and write, they can kill him and chalk it up to a business loss.
12 Years a Slave is a true and horrifying story of a little-known chapter of history told by way of a rare survivor. The trials of Solomon Northup and the slaves he meets are often difficult to watch. But the film is an important look at how easy it is to distance yourself from inhumanities you’d rather not think about.
Solomon himself didn’t spend much time dwelling on the plight of slaves before he became one. He doesn’t identify with slaves when he’s captured, as he himself is a free man. To his horror he realizes that most people in the slave trade only see skin color, not government papers granting freedoms. Simon’s fish-out-of-water perspective helps the audience learn with him.
Director Steve McQueen (Shame) is a master of examining the ugliest aspects of life. He makes Solomon’s journey terrifying by showing that rapes, beatings and death are everyday occurrences to slaves and their families. White women scorn a slave who cries over losing children. Men viciously beat their rape victims when they perceive them to be unfaithful. To the slaves, it’s life or death; to the owner’s, it’s just another day of “teaching their property to mind.”
McQueen also layers beauty into the film. Quiet landscape shots and scenes in which the slave community comfort and care for each other show us that even in vile circumstances dignity, faith and hope exist. This is the lesson Solomon must learn to survive.
The story is compelling, but the heroics are Ejiofor’s. As Solomon, he is astounding. His eyes brim with fear, pain and a quiet determination. His resolve to keep his dignity until he returns home is steadfast, even when he is brought low.
A plethora of white actors have the unenviable task of portraying slave owners. As a sadistic couple who enjoy casually assaulting their property, Sarah Paulson (American Horror Story) and Michael Fassbender (The Counselor) are a perfect pair. Menacing and sneering, they look for excuses to inflict pain.
Tragic, shocking and at times uplifting, 12 Years a Slave isn’t for the faint of heart.