12 Years a Slave

By Moira Sullivan

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is one of the most brutal narratives on slavery that has been made to date. The 44-year-old British filmmaker has been turning out exceptional provocative films such as Shame on sex addition and Hunger on the IRA leader Bobby Sands who conducted a hunger strike and died in prison.

12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, a free black man who is abducted in Washington DC in 1841 on a short trip from his home in Saratoga Springs New York. The purpose is  to accompany musicians on his violin but he is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the south leaving behind his wife and children. During these long hard years, this educated man who was an engineer has to endure the worst kind of treatment where he is beaten for being too clever and is forced to dumb down to prevent further abuse. This film makes you realize how racism continues and today’s modern atrocities mirror the early history of slavery.

Solomon is first sold to the benevolent plantation owner Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) but a fight with one his hired hands soon finds him hanging from a tree near death. It is not uncommon to encounter hangings by white man of slaves in the nearby woods. Billie Holliday’s somber ballad "Strange Fruit" speaks of 20th century hangings in the 1939 protest song she sang, written by Abel Meeropol aka Lewis Allen,  the adoptive father of the children of the executed Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, 

The next plantation owner Solomon is sent to is worse than before, the vicious sociopathic alcoholic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) with an equally abusive wife (Sarah Paulson).  We see her throwing a whiskey bottle at the young slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) for arousing her husband’s interest when the plantation slaves are invited into the manor to eat and dance.

The history of slavery is well known but to see scenes of torture degradation and abuse is almost too much. It is important to encounter this atrocity vividly, as it was, with nothing spared and this is McQueen’s ambition.

12 Years a Slave has to be one of the most important films of the year because of its depiction of slavery. Nothing is spared in gruesome details of the cruelty towards African Americans.  The treatment of the Jews during WWII has some similarities- the transportation of people against their will to another place, discrimination, murder, rape, enforced labor, atrocities,  experiments and torment.

Although there are several outstanding actors in the film it is Chiwetel Ejiofor  and Lupita Nyong'o that are the center of the film. What happens to both of them crystallizes the experience of slavery.

Brad Pitt who co-produced the film has a pivotal role as a southern man who sees Solomon as a man and who through his efforts helps to reunite him with his family. Even this reunion is extremely sad given what he has had to endure. 

12 Years a Slave puts the history of slavery in perspective and makes you understand that racial slurs by cooking TV hostesses are one and the same of the annihilation of the soul of the African slave.

© 2013 - Moira Sullivan - Air Date: 11/06/13
Movie Magazine International