CAPSULE: This is the truly horrifying true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who in 1841 was kidnapped and sold into slavery. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on his eyewitness account of his years of slavery, what he saw, and what he experienced. As one character puts it, "the story is amazing and in no good way." It is a powerful and important film, an unflinching look at some of (what we would hope is) the worst cruelty of human slavery in the Antebellum South. Rating: +3 (-4 to +4) or 9/10
[Spoiler warning: I discuss one shocking sequence in the film that really needs to be commented on. I do not think that it diminishes the viewing experience.]
Over the years we have seen films about crimes against humanity committed in history. There are many very good films about the European Holocaust. There simply have not been very many films to depict the nightmarish cruelty of slavery in the United States. No doubt part of the reason is financial. Selling the idea that the country allowed the horrendous crimes that occurred under slavery would not sell well to the American public. The narrative film that came the closest was probably the television mini-series ROOTS, made under the eyes of the network censors. That film handled the subject considerably more gently than the subject really deserved in order not to offend the television-watching public. This may be the first narrative film to show slavery this realistically. Not all slaves were treated so cruelly under American slavery as we see in the film, and some no doubt had it considerably worse, though how that could be strains the imagination. What we see in this film is credible and damning enough.
Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a well-educated, free-born black man living in Saratoga, New York in 1841 when he was offered a supposed job with a circus. He accompanied two men to Washington, DC, where instead they drugged him and sold him as a slave. He was forced to hide his education and take a name he was given, Platt. Periodic beatings were part of his treatment from the beginning. He was treated hellishly and so were the other slaves around him.
In truth, not everybody in the South's slave system is portrayed as being sadistic and cruel. Northup's first "master," William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) seems to be a decent man of conscience who appreciates Northup's intelligence and talents. However, the racial system is stacked against blacks and abhors even the mutually beneficial relationship Northup and Ford enjoy. Ford's carpenter (Paul Dano), white and jealous of Northup's position, is able to destroy the relationship. Northup has to work for a new and less scrupled master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). For the slaves working for Epps is a constant parade of beatings, rape, and torture, physical and mental. All of this is sanctioned by Scripture, as Epps tells his slaves.
In the film we see a spectrum of decency or lack thereof among the slave owners. Though as with Ford even a decent master is no protection from the system. And perhaps the most shocking sequence has Northup nearly lynched and left hanging from a tree limb standing tiptoe to breathe. As he stands there slaves around him go about their daily business doing there best not to look at him and none daring to help him or even visibly react to his peril apparently for fear of being made to share his fate. This goes beyond injustice and cruelty to the point of dehumanizing the innocent. It is a scene reminiscent of some of the worst of the European Holocaust.
The screenplay by John Ridley is based on Northup's own book and had to be carefully written to avoid melodrama. Recounting this story of slaves in the hands of decadent slaveholders, it would have been tempting to go overboard. The horrors of slavery are many, but it would be too easy to go to extremes and end with the cheap and unreal effect of Richard Fleischer's melodramatic MANDINGO. Even Quentin Tarantino's DJANGO UNCHAINED felt a little false on the subject of slavery. At no point does one feel this film is exaggerating.
The film has an impressive cast with familiar actors in even some relatively small parts. One suspects that as with Stanley Kramer's JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBERG actors were willing to accept minor roles just to be associated with an important film. Also, the right director had to be chosen, not just for his dramatic talent, but perhaps to fit the right profile. When Steven Spielberg made THE COLOR PURPLE, in some quarters it was held against him that he was a white man and a Jew making the film about the black experience. Director Steve McQueen is black but British so he is also an outsider to the American black experience.
Like Steven Spielberg's LINCOLN from last year, and for which this is a good companion piece, this film is required viewing to understand the United States as it was in the 19th, 20th, and 21st century. I rate it a +3 on the -4 to +4 scale or 9/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2024544/combined
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/12_years_a_slave/
Mark R. Leeper Copyright 2013 Mark R. Leeper