Just when you thought you had seen all the historical films about slavery, along comes “12 Years a Slave.”
Based on a memoir written in 1853 by Solomon Northup, a free man kidnapped and sold into slavery in April 1841, it’s one of the few films that convey the experience of slavery from the slave’s point of view.
Directed by Steve McQueen (“Hunger,” “Shame”) who has an undeniable skill for box office success, this movie is impeccably produced; every detail down to the most minute is carefully researched.
A movie which starts off with a quick lesson in picking cotton, the story opens with Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who is already enslaved being taught by the slave overseer on how to effectively pick cotton. What follows is a series of flashback detailing events prior to his capture and its then we learn of Solomon’s background. A musician and craftsman with a wife (Kelsey Scott) and children living in Saratoga Springs, New York, he accepts a job by circus employees who tempt him with an offer to make money playing his violin in New York City and D.C. As he travels further south with these individuals, the riskier the adventure becomes and after a night of fanfare and drinking Solomon passes out. When he wakes up the next day, he finds himself shackled in the dungeons of Williams’ Slave Pen off Seventh Street in Washington, D.C. having been sold into slavery by these men. As the story progresses, Solomon, now under the false name of Platt Hamilton, is shipped to Louisiana and sold from one plantation to another, meeting along the way other slaves in peril from the rebellious Michael K. Williams, Adepero Oduye and Lupita Nyong’o who he forms a friendship with
For 11 years, 8 months and 26 days he struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity as he faces cruelty by a malevolent slave owner called Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). He is beaten, punched, kicked, bruised, almost stabbed and almost lynched, but his innate belief is that he will, one day, be a free man again. When he is finally introduced to a charitable carpenter called Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), his path to freedom is paved by a letter declaring his captivity and he is finally reunited with his family.
A true incredible emotional journey, “12 Years a Slave” conveys heart-wrenching sadness uncovering what it was really like to “belong” to a master, whether ruthless or seemingly gracious.
With seasoned acting pros as Alfre Woodard and Paul Giamatti, music from Hans Zimmer, brilliant cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and great costume designs by Patricia Norris, this movie is frightening, gripping and inspiring.
Chiwetel Ejiofor invests in his role with dignity and simmering power. Also impeccable is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, the most industrious worker on Epps’ cotton plantation and the unfortunate object of his tormented sexual fascination.
The moments of greatest emotion in this movie include a horrifying scene where Solomon is left to hang from a lynching noose with his feet barely touching the ground for hours while children play nearby. Another sequence is when Patsey is whipped so brutally she’s left with horrible welts on much of the surface of her back.
What is most valuable about this movie is the way it provides information about slavery; from the details of the capture, the slave auctions to a dismal daily life on a plantation for slaves, who were unentitled to the rights and privileges we associate today with being part of the human race. There’s a scene where Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson) asks Solomon if he can read. “No ma’am,” he sheepishly responds to which she replies. “Good. That will be a hundred lashes if you ever try to.”
A gripping and powerful movie, few films have captured, or even attempted to convey the experience of slavery from the slave’s point of view. “12 Years a Slave” is worth seeing just for people to know about this important story and learn of a significant chapter in America’s sordid past.
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