"}
Film

12 Years a Slave

A hard history lesson

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Sometimes you’ll hear the argument that the Civil War was simply a battle over states’ rights, not slavery, or that some slaves actually made out better than they would have otherwise under the care of their mostly benevolent masters.

12 Years a Slave, director Steve McQueen’s astonishing film about Solomon Northup, upon whose autobiography it is based, kicks those notions to the curb, along with the gentrified, sun-kissed romanticism of such movies as Gone With the Wind.

Anchored by a brilliant performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, 12 Years a Slave is not garish, not overdone. McQueen simply plows straight ahead, revealing one of the great horrors of slavery: that for those living in the antebellum South, ownership of one human being by another was simply a way of life.

Finally, in this film, this is no longer just a notion softened with azaleas, columned mansions and sweet Southern accents. Slavery is revealed for the unrelenting horror that it was.

About time.

Northup was a free Black man, a musician, living in New York with his wife and children in 1841. A couple of hucksters persuade him to come down to Washington, D.C., to play his violin in the circus. It’s good pay for a couple of weeks’ work, but after a meal and wine, Northup wakes up in chains.

His freedom is gone. His identity is gone. His life as he knows it is gone. After savage beatings, he’s sold by a casually cruel trader (Paul Giamatti, at his most chilling) to a man named Ford (the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford treats him decently, intrigued by his musical talents and obvious intellect. But despite his interest, Ford can’t conceive of Northup as anything more than a curiosity.

When Northup erupts in anger against a cruel carpenter (Paul Dano), Ford sells him to Epps (Michael Fassbender), an insane, drunken owner obsessed with Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, terrific in her first feature), one of his slaves. This is not lost on his wife (Sarah Paulson), whose jealousy and anger fuel her mistreatment of Patsey and everyone else.

Fassbender is great, and it’s a powerful dynamic between Epps and his wife, but McQueen wisely never takes the focus off Northup. To do so would be to fall into the trap of the typical movie dealing with slavery; to see it from the owner’s point of view. This is Northup’s story, and Ejiofor portrays it with passion. Beaten but not broken, Northup never loses his dignity or, astoundingly, his hope.

How hard it must have been. In the film’s most astonishing scene, Dano’s carpenter strings Northup up on the branch of a tree. He leaves just enough slack for Northup’s toes to touch the ground, forcing Northup to gasp for breath as he performs a horrific dance.

McQueen holds the shot for a long time, letting us share Northup’s suffering. What’s most troubling, however, beyond the physical suffering, is how life on the plantation goes on without pause as Northup dangles, like some sort of nightmarish wind chime. A boy offers him water, but otherwise no one—slave, White man, no one—pays him any mind. He is furniture.

No, he’s less than that. He’s a slave.

The acting is outstanding, the direction assured if straightforward. 12 Years a Slave is a history lesson of the best type. It’s brilliant. But, more crucially, it’s important. It’s brutal truth that demands to be seen.

Ticket Cascadia
More Film...
London Road
A musical murder mystery

The techniques of verbatim theater go back decades, to at least the 1950s, when young German theater troupes would reenact complicated court cases word for word onstage. Even earlier, in the United States, the WPA paid for a form of this performance with its “Living Newspapers,” in…

more »
The Magnificent Seven
Another day, another remake

The big difference between the new version of The Magnificent Seven and the revered 1960 feature is the ethnic background of the main characters. The titular seven in director Antoine Fuqua’s take are a diverse bunch, while the ruthless villain of the piece is no longer a Mexican bandito…

more »
Bridget Jones’s Baby
Renee gets a rebirth

Hapless London-based media type Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) returns to the big screen after a 12-year break to battle unexpected pregnancy, 20-something hipsters and, once more, the perils of live TV in Bridget Jones’s Baby. With our heroine now a successful single producer in her…

more »
Events
Today
A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

Connected by climate

10:00am

Bard on the Beach

2:00pm|Vanier Park

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Skagit Garage Sale

9:00am|Skagit County Fairgrounds

Oktoberfest Cruises

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Love, Loss & What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

The Music Man

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

A back-to-school guide

8:00pm

Welcome Back Students Shows

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Community Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Ferndale Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Hall

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Mount Vernon Farmers Market

9:00am|Riverfront Plaza

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

Farm Toy Show

9:00am|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Skagit Valley Giant Pumpkin Festival

9:00am|Christianson's Nursery

Harvest Festival and Pumpkin Pitch

9:00am|Skagit River Park

Oyster Run Motorcycle Rally

9:00am|Anacortes

Sumas Writers Group

10:00am|Sumas Library

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Fall Family Fun

10:00am|Glen Echo Garden

Run with the Chums

10:00am|BP Highlands

Harvest Field Day

11:00am|WSU Washington Research and Extension Center

Wild Foods

11:00am|Deming Library

Food Truck Roundup

11:00am|Civic Stadium

Making memories at Make.Shift

12:00pm

Council of the Animals

12:00pm|Larrabee State Park

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Museum Day Live!

12:00pm|Whatcom Museum

Family Trees

1:00pm|Mount Vernon City Library

Holly Street History Tour

1:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Fingerpainting for Grownups

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Trio of Writers at VB

2:00pm|Village Books

Salute to Satchmo

3:00pm|Sudden Valley Dance Barn

i.e. Reception

4:00pm|i.e. gallery

Artist Talk

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

The Ferndale Challenge

5:00pm|Ferndale Senior Activity Center

World Peace Poets Read-In

5:00pm|St. James Presbyterian Church

Democrats Dinner

5:30pm|Silver Reef Casino

Irish Concert and Workshop

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Night Hike

7:00pm|Tennant Lake Interpretive Center

CW BOB 2016 Northwood Steak and Crab
Tomorrow
Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Connected by climate

10:00am

The Miracle Worker

7:30pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Little Women

7:30pm|Whidbey Playhouse

Love, Loss & What I Wore

7:30pm|Heiner Auditorium

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

Boating Center Open

12:00pm|Community Boating Center

Bellingham Bay Marathon

7:30am|Gooseberry Point

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Veterans Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Starry Night Chamber Orchestra

3:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

I, Angus

4:00pm|Village Books

Art of Jazz

4:00pm|BAAY Theatre

Sunday Night Fusion

7:00pm|Presence Studio

Deobrat Mishra

7:00pm|Majestic

Culture Shock

7:30pm|Upfront Theatre

Standup Comedy Showcase

8:30pm|The Shakedown

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Northwood Steak and Crab
Monday
A gold medal standard

4:00pm

Eat Local Month

4:00pm|Bellingham and Whatcom County

Whatcom Water Week

10:00am|Whatcom County

We Grow Market

3:00pm|Northwest Youth Services

Yoga for Outdoor Fitness

6:00pm|REI

Candidate Forum

6:30pm|PUD Building

Cooking with Sea Vegetables

6:30pm|Community Food Co-op

The Happy Elf Auditions

7:00pm|Claire vg Thomas Theatre

Open Mic

7:00pm|Village Books

Poetrynight

8:00pm|Bellingham Public Library

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

see our complete calendar »

Everybody’s Store Northwood Steak and Crab CW BOB 2016 Andrew Subin Bellingham Farmer’s Market Village Books Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Swinomish 2016 Artifacts Wine Bar