12 Years a Slave is the most horrifying film you’ll see all year. It’s also one of the most beautiful. What we see in several movies this season (including Philomena and The Book Thief) is what evil human beings do to one another, in settings of exquisite beauty.
The evil in this film of course is American slavery, based on a true story by a man named Northrup Solomon, published in 1854. It told the sorry tale of his life as a proud, free black man in upper New York state. Happily married, father of three, dapper, educated, a nice middle-class income, and an amazing talent on the fiddle. Betrayed by two con men who entice him out of town with the offer of a high-paying music job, Solomon is kidnapped, shackled, beaten senseless, and sold into slavery, eventually ending up on plantations in the remote back country of Louisiana.
The picture of slavery is so sickening that the only way you can tolerate it on the screen is that you already know our hero obtains his freedom after twelve years. And the only way you can tolerate the bloody, vicious, dehumanizing treatment given to the slaves is by contrast with strange and wondrous natural beauty in the Spanish moss-draped land of Louisiana.
Throughout his captivity, Solomon irritates certain white men, who see his education as arrogance and want to punish him for it. Several times more experienced slaves warn him about how he must act to survive. “I don’t want to survive,” he declares, “I want to live!”
His fierce determination, however, is chipped away by time and cruelty and betrayal. “I will not sink into despair!” he cries. He may falter in his faith in himself but he doesn’t give up. Despite all his years of misery and the degradation of his once-strong body, Solomon stays determined to live—and that determination, that defiance against all odds, that clinging to dignity despite the disgusting behavior of his fellow men—and women—that is also what makes this film so beautiful. In the pigsty of human evil, human pride and goodness can still raise its voice.
Though it is a quintessential American tale, 12 Years a Slave has an unmistakable British patina. Solomon is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, born in England of Nigerian parents, who was memorable in Kinky Boots (2005) and Children of Men (2006). The two plantation owners are English actors, the nice one, Ford, played by Bernard Cumberbatch, and the psychotic one, Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbinder.
The film is directed by a black Englishman, Steve McQueen, who gained attention with Shame, about sex addiction (2011), which starred Michael Fassbinder who’s also in Years. The writer, John Ridley, whose job is to be the most authentic voice in a film like this one which is under such scrutiny to be politically correct, is indeed a man with the right background – a prolific black American novelist, playwright, and screenplay writer.
Other Americans include most of the rest of the cast. The searing character of the young female slave, Patsey, is played by Lubita Nyong’o, born in Mexico, raised in Kenya and trained at Yale Drama School, in her debut film. Other Americans actors include the slave trader ironically named Freeman, played by a reptilian Paul Giamatti; the monstrous plantation foreman, Paul Dano; and the Canadian abolitionist Brad Pitt. Alfre Woodard is the powerful black mistress on a nearby plantation.
The two white plantation mistresses are pale reflections of their husbands, the clueless Mistress Ford (Liza J. Bennett) and the sadistic Mistress Epp, Sarah Paulson. While the villainous men are overt in their cruelty, it is the women’s subtle ignorance that is so creepily insidious. One of the female slaves sold with Solomon has been separated from her children and cannot stop weeping. The plantation mistress, annoyed by the slave’s noise comments irritably, “Just give her some food and a bath and she’ll soon forget about those children.”
Yes, it’s a large cast—all wonderful—and a huge creative team that put this magnificent film together. It would have to be – a story that takes place over 12 years, from the urban north to the rural south, about a man who lives with one foot in the white world, the other in the black. The reason the film was #1 at the box office for three solid weeks is clear – it deserved to be.
While Ejiofor, as Solomon, electrifies every scene he’s in, it’s the story of the female slave, Patsey, that equally takes our heart. The only thing worse than being a male slave, has to be being a female slave. Not only are you starved, and whipped and brutalized and betrayed, but you also get to be raped all your life and have your children stolen out of your arms.
And remember, all these things are done by people who seek confirmation of their behavior in the pages of the Christian Bible. Makes you sick. England prohibited slavery in 1834. It took the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 to do it here in the U.S. That was over 150 years ago and the fight for equality is still going on. Let us not forget the recent attempts by the North Carolina legislature to blatantly curtail voting rights among our state’s black citizens.
Reminder, this movie is rated R for violence and cruelty. It’s not for children or overly sensitive adults. It is for adults who want to be informed about a chapter in American history we’d rather forget and for those who want to be moved by portrayals of the indomitable human spirit.