It’s difficult to imagine a more troubled historical era in American history than the mid 1800s when the Northern states had emancipated former black slaves as free citizens, while Southern states continued the heinous practice of slavery, albeit with the promise of “papers” granting freedom after a certain period of indentured servitude.
Lesser known were the bands of slavers who would kidnap free blacks in the Northern states and ship them South, sold into slavery for great personal profit, even as it was a complete nightmare for the men, women and children caught in the net. 12 Years a Slave retells the story of Solomon Northup (portrayed brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor) who was ripped from his wife and two young children in upstate New York and sold to slavers in New Orleans, eventually suffering a dozen years of servitude before finally being able to get word North and secure his freedom.
Many films have been made addressing this period and most fall quickly into cliché (Gone with the Wind) or historical revisionism (Django Unchained) so it was with some trepidation that I attended an early screening of 12 Years a Slave with its all-star cast featuring Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch and Brad Pitt, but with just a few brief hiccups, the film is true to the story, serious, dramatic and breathtaking.
Northup (Eliofor) is kidnapped by two men who tell him they work with a traveling amusement troupe and need him for their ensemble, with a guaranteed weekly wage. After a night of celebration with his new white employers he wakes up chained to a warehouse wall just a few miles from the nation’s capital in Washington. His cries for help are unanswered and soon he’s shipped south on a paddlewheel, the ceaseless rotation of which foreshadows the ever increasing emotional distance he, a free man with a family, travels into the dark world of slavery.
With no papers and no one who cares about his story, he’s soon sold into the ownership of Louisiana plantation owners William Ford (Cumberbatch), then Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Along the way he befriends fellow slaves, including Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). But he never forgets his family in New York , never entirely gives up hope of rescue until, in a symbolic scene, he realizes he’s been tricked and cannot mail a letter to his wife through a seemingly sympathetic abolitionist. He burns the letter and as the embers fade away he realizes that he might indeed be trapped a slave until his death, his former life but an unattainable dream of a distant land.
When Epps hires Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) to build some structures on his Louisiana plantation, Northup finally meets an abolitionist with a passion for righting the wrong of Northup’s forced slavery. We meet Bass as he engages in a debate with the fierce Epps about the morality of slavery, an argument that seems unlikely at best given that Bass has been hired to build a structure for Epps at the time. More so, Epps is an angry unprincipled sadist, egged on to increasing depths of sadism by his viper of a wife Mistress Epps (a startling performance by Sarah Paulson), and the fact that he doesn’t beat Bass for his outspoken comments in front of the slaves is difficult to believe.
That flat note aside, the performances by lead Chiwetel Ejiofor, who has already established himself as a powerful and serious actor, and Adepero Oduye as Eliza, who first has her children taken from her by the slavers and then is alternately raped and savagely beaten by Epps, are both superb. Both of their performances let us begin to understand the psychological highs and lows of slave life as portrayed with depth and pathos, and more than once I wiped a tear away as I imagined myself in their situation.
12 Years a Slave is a terrific film that’s one of the best released this year, sure to produce a number of Academy Award nominations, including Best Actor, Best Actress and most especially Best Picture. It’s powerful and not just a reminder of a terrible period in our country’s history but also a wake-up call about how quickly our own “inalienable rights” could be taken from us. It’s a sobering thought and an eminently watchable movie.