“12 Years a Slave” wrenching—and essential
FOR A COUNTRY CAUGHT UP IN ITS OWN MYTH OF GREATness, “12 Years a Slave” is a hard movie to stomach. The South especially doesn’t like to be reminded of the dark corners of our past.
So many of us hide behind lofty notions of states’ rights and heritage, remembering the Civil War as a valorous defense of a simple way of life, while ignoring that the antebellum culture was founded on the right to own other people. No one in history has clean hands—brutality, violence, degradation and evil are as responsible for forward progress as art, music, and charity.
But ever so often, we need to be reminded that our cities were built on the broken backs of immigrants, that we have a history of oppression, and that there was a time when human bondage and freedom were asserted as core tenets of our ideology without any hint of irony. “12 Years a Slave” is that reminder. It is the most powerful and emotionally charged film of the year, one that lingers in the mind long after the credits roll.
The film is based on the true account of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a freeborn black man living Saratoga Springs, New York. An accomplished violinist and carpenter, Northrup owned a house, had a wife and children, and was well educated and well spoken. While on a brief tour with a circus in Washington D.C. to earn extra money during a slow period, Northrup was kidnapped into slavery by his employers. The film is an account of his experiences as a slave, ranging from the conditions of the slave markets, the treatment of slaves under an “honest” owner and the depraved practices of a “slave breaker”.
The film captures the hopelessness of slavery. It’s an unblinking look at how destructive and foul a society built on possessing another human being is. There is no goodness in this film—even the slavers that treat their slaves generously are shown as shortsighted, blind to their own prejudices. Benedict Cumberbatch plays one such planter, a Baptist preacher named William Ford.
Ford purchases Northrup and another woman who shared the journey from Washington. He expresses regret at separating the woman from her children, but sells her quickly when her grief disturbs his wife during a mandatory slave church service.
There is a constant defense of the institution of slavery through Biblical passages, quoted by slavers both “good” and bad. Some use it in a mocking, accusing tone, while others preach it as guidance in a fallen world. The film highlights the evil in both views.
Of particular note in the film is the fiery performance by Michael Fassbender as the angry, drunk, malevolent slaver Edwin Epps. The dark recesses of his spitting rage, his lecherous desire for a young slave girl named Patsey, his own self loathing and hatred are layered into a genuine portrait of a man that is as much a victim of slavery as a perpetrator of it. Northrup is unfairly forced into this world, robbed of life and liberty. He spends all his time clinging to hope that he will one day escape from it. Epps was born into that evil, was shaped by it, and ruined because of it. He is chained in the cave, watching the shadows on the wall.
Northrup has at least seen the shadows from the outside, making him freer in a sense than the man who withholds his freedom. Of course, the film belongs to Ejiofor, who owns the role as only an actor of his caliber can. In a scene at the graveside of an older slave who fell dead in the field from exhaustion, we see Northrup join in the singing of a spiritual for the first time. He sings because there is nothing left in him, no hope but the eternal, no comfort but the song. It is one of the most compelling performances I’ve seen in any film.
As the title suggests, Northrup eventually is freed and makes it home to his family. For American audiences, this modest degree of happiness in a deeply dark film is a requirement. But there was no escape for the vast majority of slaves in the South. The sorrow and anguish of bondage continued until death. A few words during the end credits don’t hammer that point home as well as they should.
Regardless, “12 Years a Slave” is an important film, one that all Americans should see—it is essential viewing.