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.

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