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.

More Film...
Island love

There’s something thrilling about a movie that introduces us to a corner of the world we never knew existed. Tanna is that kind of film. It was shot on the remote South Pacific island that gives the movie its name with a cast composed entirely of local non-actors. The people of Yakel…

more »
Not so hot after all

In the long and spotty history of movie taglines, few have been quite as noncommittal as the one dreamed up for Inferno, the third in director Ron Howard’s series of schlockbusters drawn from the nominal literary oeuvre of Dan Brown. “The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons were just the…

more »
The Holocaust on trial

Denial is a movie about a real-life libel case. The filmmaking isn’t fancy or ambitious. Its aim is to tell the story of the case, from its origins to its finish, and it does so clearly, with no embellishment. Fortunately, the issues surrounding the case are so fascinating and so packed…

more »
Handling the truth


Creepy Cabaret

6:30pm|Bellingham High School

Costume Party

6:30pm|Blaine Library

Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Berlin is My Paris

7:00pm|Village Books

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

MBT Once Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Arsenic and Old Lace

7:00pm|Lynden Pioneer Museum

Wild Things

9:30am|Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Parkinson's Dance Class

10:00am|Ballet Bellingham

Spanish Storytime

10:00am|Lynden Library

Ferndale Farmers Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Final Ferndale Market

1:00pm|Cherry Street

Scary Bake Sale

1:30pm|Blaine Library

Gates and Fires

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk

5:30pm|Syre Student Center

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Art Party

6:00pm|Tillie Lace Gallery

Hamster Ball

6:30pm|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Panic Squad

7:00pm|Lynden Middle School

Ben Folds and a Piano

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Back to School Catechism

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

MBT Ben Folds Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1
Handling the truth


Scream Fair Haunted House

6:30pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Gore and Lore Tours

6:00pm|Historic Fairhaven and downtown Bellingham

Our Town

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Walton Theatre


8:00pm|Old Main Theater


8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Ghosts of Concrete

11:00pm|Skagit County Community Action Center

Fall Family Fun

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Lynden Community Center

Run Wild Bellingham

9:00am|Whatcom Falls Park

Anacortes Farmers Market

9:00am|Depot Arts Center

Hummingbird Class

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Twin Sisters Farmers Market

9:00am|Nugent's Corner

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Birch Bay Bible Church

Family Activity Day

10:00am|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Harvest Happens

10:00am|Bellewood Acres

Chuckanut Writers Workshop

10:00am|Village Books

Blaine Gardeners Market

10:00am|Peace Portal Drive

Youth Symphony Fall Concert

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Gravestone Primer

1:00pm|Sedro-Woolley Museum

Writing Workshop

2:30pm|Lynden Library

Closing Reception at i.e.

3:00pm|i.e. gallery

Walk the Stars

4:00pm|Village Books

Artist Talk in Edison

4:00pm|Smith & Vallee Gallery

Ghost Stories on Bellingham Bay

4:30pm|T.G. Richards Building

BAAY Haunted House

6:00pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Irish Concert

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Halloween Contra Dance

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Rocky Horror Picture Show

8:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Saturday Night Spookeasy

8:00pm|Secret locale

see our complete calendar »

MBT Ben Folds MBT Ben Folds Everybody’s Store Northwood Steak and Crab Village Books Swinomish 2016 Bellingham Farmer’s Market Andrew Subin Lydia Place Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Artifacts Wine Bar