We begin in 1841 with Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a prosperous, free black man who lives in Saratoga, New York with his wife and two children. Solomon is a talented musician, and has the opportunity to go on a trip with a circus to make some money while his family is away for a few weeks. One night, in Washington D.C., Solomon is drugged at dinner by the two men who invited him on the trip, and is abducted and locked in a cell, where he is beaten mercilessly. He makes a plea for help, telling his captors about his freedom, but to no avail. The audience hears his desperate, unheard cries, and sees the Capitol Building in the background, standing tall but indifferent to Solomon’s sudden misery. He is no longer a free man, but a slave in chains. He is to be sent to the deep South, where the loudest cries for help fade into the abyss.
Following a perilous and humiliating journey, Solomon arrives at the plantation of a man named William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is impressed by Solomon’s talents, and treats him fairly well. Solomon is treated horribly, however, by an overseer at the plantation named Tibeats, who appears to be jealous of Solomon for his talents and preferential treatment from Ford. One day, Tibeats taunts and hits Solomon, who responds by assaulting and overpowering him. Tibeats is enraged, and nearly hangs Solomon, as his feet graze the muddy ground, clinging on to life, a shot symbolic of his entire struggle. Ford’s men intervene, but with the expressed goal of protecting their property, not of saving a human life. As Solomon struggles to keep his toes on the ground, others walk by without helping, as if he is an animal unworthy of empathy. It is quite evident now that no matter what favoritism or assistance he receives, Solomon is still viewed as subhuman.
Thus, McQueen breaks through the mold of inaccuracies left by Hollywood in depicting slavery, and almost right away, 12 Years a Slave reveals itself as a honest, pragmatic work of art. Instead of an unrealistic feel good story, we find a story more similar to the Southern Gothic stylings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor, focusing on the decay of morality and how humans choose to react to it. Solomon chooses to live.
Solomon refuses to give up his dignity and will to go on. In a scene where other slaves are discussing the importance of doing anything necessary to stay alive, Solomon responds “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.” In another conversation, one slave talks about how slave owners often suppress their conscience by either making excuses for the atrocities they’ve committed, or going into a storm of violent rage.
After the fight with Tibeats, Solomon is sent to a plantation owned by a man named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who immediately proves to be ruthless, sexually frustrated, and completely confident in the righteousness of his enterprise. Epps and Solomon immediately clash, and Epps is determined to humiliate Solomon and break his will. During one particularly horrifying scene, Epps is furious at a slave named Patsey, who he has repeatedly raped. He is about to whip her, but a glint of empathy and concern flashes across his face. We see not a monster, but a human being in Epps. He stares blankly, almost crying, before quickly turning around and violently demanding that Solomon whip Patsey. Solomon reluctantly abides, completely breaking down in the process. Epps has reverted back into his animalistic manner, and grabs the whip from Solomon, dealing powerful blow after blow to the back of Patsey. Although hard to stomach, this scene is an example of phenomenal directing and perfect acting.
The overall construction of 12 Years a Slave makes it just as beautiful and awe-inspiring as it is heart-wrenching and terrifying. The cinematography and direction leaves a powerful impression. Gorgeous bayous and willow trees surround the stunningly pretty Southern plantation master houses, all part of beautiful scenery that encapsulates so much evil and fear. The already amazing performances from the actors, especially Ejiofor and Fassbender, are enhanced by the masterful use of frequent and extreme closeups.
It moves like no movie I have ever seen, flowing sporadically and without care for narrative convenience. But this is the human approach. Just as Solomon Northrup was forced into slavery, the audience is as well, abruptly thrust into confusion, anxiety, and fear of the unknown. As with with films like Zero Dark Thirty and Captain Phillips, the ending of this painful tale is known by most of the audience already. However, the experience is far from lessened. We are able to deeply examine the innermost emotions of a man thrown into a hopeless situation that he does not belong in. But who does deserve it? A free, happy man before he is abducted, Solomon Northup cannot believe that such a grave evil has been done to him. But as he experiences slavery, he sees it for what it truly is: an absolute evil that no man should have to know the pains of. Solomon, who went on to write a book and become an active abolitionist, saw himself as one person who experienced a vast human atrocity.
12 Years a Slave It is a haunting reminder of the mistakes that we have made, not only as a nation, but as a people. And it is above all an honest film. It does not shy away from plastering the most violent, absurd, and disturbing images on the big screen, thus telling Solomon’s story in the most accurate cinematic way possible. We could use more of that type of approach to art and to life in general. Being bold, yet pragmatic like Steve McQueen and all involved in is the first step to alleviating the deep, irreparable wounds of our imperfect past.
Frank Nolan is a sophomore Political Communication major from Minneapolis, Minnesota. He loves old movies and Italian food. 75% Irish, 100% American.