‘12 Years a Slave’ review: Slavery, unsoftened and unforgiven, through the eyes of one of its victims

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December 24, 2013 by Hope W.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

Just as Schindler’s List is the first to come into mind when people think of films about the Holocaust, 12 Years a Slave will go down in cinematic history as that film for slavery. (Django Unchained? Pfft. It treated the subject in the same irreverent manner as Inglourious Bastards did rewriting WWII history.) I’ve talked about my anticipation for it and the tons of awards buzz it has garnered since premiering at film festivals in end August; and it lives up to all my heightened expectations. It didn’t grip my guts the way I thought it would; rather, its unflinching brutality felt more like lashes to the skin, and therefore made it extremely painful to watch in many parts. In the lulls in between, it plods along so steadily and quietly that it is difficult to tell how much time has passed, only that it seems interminable. (Kind of like how a slave’s life would have been, I think, in between whippings and other horrors.)

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon Northup, a free black man who was kidnapped and sold into slavery for 12 years before he is finally rescued — and it’s important to note this, because he could not have broken free on his own accord, since the word of a black man in those days was worth nothing without papers to prove himself. He portrays Solomon’s deplorable state with such emotional and physical intensity of expression that I hope he wins the Oscar for Best Actor, just for the pains he underwent to film this alone. One scene particularly highlights the rigor of his performance, while hammering in the inhumanity of the whites’ abetment of slavery, even those who did not raise a hand against the slaves themselves. Solomon is strung up by Tibeats (Paul Dano) and friends for retaliating against Tibeats’ senseless instructions and subsequent effort to whip him for insubordination. Though the overseer stops them from hanging him, he doesn’t cut Solomon down, leaving him to tiptoe on the mud and struggle to breathe. (One of the takes was done in a wide shot and went on for a few minutes, which must have been grueling for Chiwetel Ejiofor, even if they took precautions to ensure his safety.) His fellow slaves don’t dare to help him down, and everyone, including the mistress of the house, just watches him suffer silently. Only when William Ford (Solomon’s first master, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) arrives, hours later, and rushes to cut him down then does he get a reprieve.

Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford in 12 Years a Slave

Benedict Cumberbatch as William Ford in 12 Years a Slave

You might think that the first owner, Ford, is a fairly decent person, but as the film shows, he — and other so-called “kind masters” of that era — is equally complicit in the crime of slavery by doing nothing to help Solomon’s circumstances. When Solomon tells him he is a free man, he replies “I can’t know that”, and sells him off to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), his second and far crueler master, to keep him safe from Tibeats’ rage — though one wonders if it is to avoid trouble for himself too. And despite the apparent anguish on his face, he turns his back as Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a female slave, is torn from her children at the slave auction — a heartrending scene in its entirety, from the moment you enter the auction house and see all the slaves naked and measured like livestock, to Eliza and her children screaming as they are separated. His wife sees Eliza crying in the wagon, and she tells her to get some rest and food, and then in a moment of pure “WTF”-ry, says the line that damns her to hell: “Your children will soon be forgotten.”

Director Steve McQueen, Adepero Oduye (Emily) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) on the set of 12 Years a Slave

Director Steve McQueen, Adepero Oduye (Eliza) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup) on set

Edwin Epps is a cruel, drunk, madman of an owner, but as other reviewers have mentioned, Michael Fassbender has infused Epps with more layers than just that of a purely evil slave driver. He is partial towards Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) — a beautiful female slave with unparalleled cotton-picking skills — incurring the jealousy of his severe wife (Sarah Paulson, who is fantastic with her limited screen time), who belittles him in front of his slaves and makes Patsey’s life a living hell. He endures his wife’s contempt and watches her abuse Patsey with world-weariness, and himself rapes Patsey frequently; but in a twisted, possessive manner, he loves Patsey too. (Michael Fassbender in that scene when he thinks that Patsey has run away and sobs in a bereft manner “My Patsey’s gone”? SO GOOD.)

So much so that in that same awful scene where he whips her bloody, he couldn’t do it at first — you can literally see all his emotions running across his face — and forces Solomon do it. And director Steve McQueen doesn’t allow you to pretend it’s just a movie: he swivels the camera in the midst of whipping to show the lashes being inflicted on her back, a gross sight that the weak of stomach might hurl at.

Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in 12 Years a Slave

Michael Fassbender as Epps, Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

And Lupita Nyong’o is so arresting in her desperation and wretchedness in that scene, beginning from when she rants at Epps about having gone off to get soap to clean herself, which her mistress refuses to give her, so that she could feel human, to the aftermath when the other slaves are tending to her wounds and she is crying in pain. Frankly, she’s just amazing in the movie: whether she’s begging Solomon to drown her because she can’t take all the abuse anymore; or hugging Solomon before he leaves, having been rescued by a former acquaintance of his, and then collapsing behind him in despair. And Solomon looks at her as they drive away — just as he looked at Eliza when she was being dragged off to a new owner and screaming for him — and could do nothing to help either of them.

Lupita Nyong'o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the scene where Patsey begs Solomon to drown her

Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in the scene where Patsey begs Solomon to drown her

It’s a film which throws the institution of slavery in the harshest, most unforgiving light that the medium has rarely given the topic. I don’t know how those slaves could continue believing in God under those circumstances, when the slave owners themselves (mis)used the Bible to justify their cruelty. Looking at how they lived, I would rather die than be sold into or endure slavery.

Nor do I know how the Southern states can live with that legacy. Because the worst thing is, I’ve seen enough examples of humanity to be pretty sure that if slavery is still legal today, there will still be people there doing exactly what their ancestors did 200 years ago. Solomon could finally escape because he was born a free man and could prove it legally, but many of his fellow slaves were born into slavery and therefore couldn’t. And so millions lived and died cheaply, because good men were indifferent while evil deeds were done. (Which also sums up why every other atrocity in history happened.)

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