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12 Years A Slave - A Review

Boone Hall Original Slave Cabins. Photo: Courtesy of Rennett Stowe

Color is an interesting concept in a world that has often been black and white in its rationale. How pigmentation had been the basis and justification in the dehumanization of the human race is astonishing. This certainly applies to the U.S. with the Declaration of Independence being "self-evident that all men are created equal," even though its government only ended slavery more than 150 years after most of Europe had abolished the horrific institution.

Steve McQueen's third film, 12 Years A Slave (2013), is the definitive film about slavery in America. Based on the real memoir written by ex-slave Solomon Northup (an ironic name and incredibly portrayed by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor), who was born a free man in upstate New York, the film avoids Hollywood glitz, gloss, and glamor. Instead, McQueen (who is also British) gives us a raw and real feel about Solomon's incredible fight for survival and freedom, as well as the horrors and struggles of the slaves he encounters.

Although the exposition is a bit Capra-esque in tone, with a bit too much cheeriness to show Solomon's blessed life as a free, respected, and successful musician happily married with children, this is clearly done to contrast the latter events. One powerful scene in the beginning is when Solomon and his family are in a shop and a slave master, named Fitzgerald, reprimands his slave, Jasper, for entering by himself. Fitzgerald says to the shopkeeper, "My regrets for the intrusion," to which Solomon replies, "No intrusion." However, Fitzgerald disdainfully refuses to acknowledge Solomon and just looks back at the shopkeeper as Jasper can do nothing but gaze.

Shortly afterwards, Solomon is approached by two white men who claim to be entertainers of a circus company and offer Solomon a lucrative job to play violin in New York City. Expecting the trip to be brief and naïvely trusting of his surroundings, Solomon accepts and foolishly does not tell his wife, Anne (played by Kelsey Scott). After one successful performance, the men persuade Solomon to travel with the circus to Washington, D.C., a place where slavery is legal. After Solomon suddenly becomes "ill," he wakes up in a dark basement chained, and is soon beaten to keep from saying that he is a free man. We are then introduced to flashbacks that work well to keep us (and Solomon) guessing about his situation and fate. But this scene hardly prepares us for what is in store.

What follows are multi-dimensional characters that are realistically fallible, human, and subhuman. Deception becomes a running theme as we feel Solomon's pain and fear. He is quickly chained to a ship alongside other slaves and sold against his will as a fugitive slave. Solomon's first slave master, William Ford (intensely played by Benedict Cumberbatch), is characteristically cruel: forcing his slaves to listen to him preaching Bible verses; and not batting an eye as a slave mother is ripped apart from her children at auction (with a compelling cameo by Paul Giammati reminiscent of his Emmy Award-winning HBO series "John Adams"). Notwithstanding, Ford also exhibits compassion in scenes where he listens and trusts Solomon's wise advice, offers him a violin, and risks his own life to save Solomon's neck (literally).

Aside from depicting the anticipated verbal and physical torment inflicted on slaves, McQueen more importantly shows the minute subtleties that slavery held as a dependent way of life for millions of Americans. The camera lingers on the sadomasochism, abhorrence, and culpability as a projection of the self-hatred exuded by ignorant whites and slave owners. We are reminded of the depredation and degradation of blacks as human beings: the importance of keeping slaves from becoming "learned" (literate); forcing them to starve, then eat at will, pick cotton, chop fields, and snitch; coercing blacks to whip and beat other slaves; being woken up in the middle of the night to amuse whites; and performing sexual acts for their masters.

In particular, Edwin Epps is one of the most sadistic characters ever shown in cinema. Michael Fassbender (who has acted in all of McQueen's films) is mesmerizing as the cruel and merciless plantation owner who is first introduced preaching and vindicating from the Bible: "Well some say John was a Baptist, some say John was a Jew, but I say John was a preacher, because the Bible says so, too." However, Epps cannot cope with his sexual obsession and "love" for his prized slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o who is extraordinary in her film debut). He remains conflicted about whether to rape, torture, or murder Patsey, who picks the most cotton for his plantation but also enrages his wife (a cold and convincing performance by Sarah Paulson) with vehement jealousy. Mistress Epps embodies the apathetic ignorance, in particular of the antebellum south, with her possessive and unadulterated hatred for people of color.

Throughout the film, McQueen offers his standard long shots that often depict Solomon staring off as he (and the camera) ponders his situation in a state of disbelief. There are also many long takes complemented with sounds of nature in the background to add to the enforced desensitization of slaves, including children, who simply and matter-of-factly go about their business and menial tasks while other slaves are whipped, beaten, and hanged just close enough to barely stay alive. What remains miraculous is how, despite the horrors and failed attempts at contacting his friends and family in the north, Solomon never loses hope and remains strong enough to outwit his masters' abuse and outlive their provocation.

As the years pass, we wonder just how Solomon will return home. A fortuitous encounter with a Canadian abolitionist (played by Brad Pitt who also serves as the film's producer) provides just that opportunity. Unfortunately, his cameo takes us out of the picture amid a relatively unknown cast. Otherwise, 12 Years A Slave haunts, taunts, and realistically brings to the silver screen one of the most deeply disturbing and disgraceful periods of history. Released at a time when America's President is a person of color, the film offers promise for future generations. 



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Friday, 19 July 2024

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