It is a well-known belief that history tends to repeat itself, for better or for worse. So how, you might ask, can we stop from remaking the mistakes of the past? Well, for a start, we can educate ourselves. How do we do this? We read firsthand accounts of history’s horrors, especially those that took place in our own countries. But what if we forget to do this? What if the material is not constantly surrounding us and describing the past, and conveying how white Americans are implicated in the system of privilege their ancestors established? Well, then, we can only hope that someone will remind us. One stain in the history of the United States happened not as long ago as many of us would believe: the chattel slavery of millions forced to work in the Southern and border states until the Emancipation Proclamation and the passing of the Thirteenth Amendment in the mid-1800s.
Unfortunately, the horrors of this time period are often watered down when taught to American teenagers, and the consumption of popular anti-Tom literature such as Gone with the Wind only perpetuates the notion that slavery could not have been all that bad.
Steve McQueen’s American-British film 12 Years a Slave is here to set the record straight.
The movie is based on the 1853 bestseller and autobiography of the same name by Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in the film), a free and literate African American of Saratoga, New York who was drugged and kidnapped in Washington, D.C. in 1841. He was made to work on plantations in Louisiana as a slave until, twelve years later, a white abolitionist and Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), agreed to write to Northup’s wife, who contacted the men who freed him and sent him home.
The film is remarkably faithful to the book, having been shot mostly in New Orleans. It spares no feelings as it tells the R-rated story of how Northup is torn from earning a living playing the violin and is sold first to cotton planter and Baptist preacher William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), then slave owner John Tibeats (Paul Dano) and lastly the savage plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). The film runs for approximately two hours and fifteen minutes and succeeds where many movies fail in wasting very little time.
The movie’s brilliance lies in its refusal to shy away from the gritty reality of slave life in the nineteenth-century American South, featuring graphic showings of rape, hangings, humiliation, whippings, malnutrition, disease and despair.
Where other movies fade to black when a master approaches his slave with a whip, 12 Years a Slave makes its audience sit through scenes of sexual abuse, beatings and attempts at suffocation, several of which last for many minutes. This forces the film’s viewer into a constant state of anticipation and anxiety, broken by relief only at the film’s end.
Of course, without talented actors, even such explicit sequences might fail to break through the layers of insensitivity constant television exposure has built into American minds. Luckily, 12 Years a Slave has no such problem. The work of its talented lead actor, Ejiofor, known by some for his portrayal of Peter in the 2003 film Love Actually, could have been surpassed by very few.
Praise is to be given to Dano and Fassbender as well for their success in demonstrating the lengths to which men can go when placed in positions of power. Cumberbatch, though his southern accent does slip at times, convincingly plays his role as a less violent slave owner who nonetheless is too scared to help a man who claims he once was free. The depiction of such a character reminds the audience that sometimes even good intentions cannot overcome fear.
But let us not limit acclaim to men. Lupita Nyong’o, who won a New Hollywood Award for her portrayal of the slave Patsey, is responsible for causing a large portion of the film’s heartbreak. Patsey’s frequent rape by Epps, hard labor in the cotton fields and whipping scene (her crime is only wanting a bit of soap) can easily move audiences to tears. The girl, driven to the point of asking Northup to assist her with suicide, is not freed at the film’s end and is thus an important reminder that the majority of slaves at this time were born and died as the supposed property of other human beings.
Sarah Paulson is to be commended also for her portrayal of Epps’ wife, Mary, who demands slaves wake up in the night to dance for her entertainment and mocks them by giving them food she bakes. The character suggests that even those who may be viewed as possessions themselves—such as women in 19th century North America—can also be cruel toward others.
There is very little about this film that could be improved upon. One suggestion I would make would be the limitation of lengthy close-ups of Ejiofor’s expressions. The pain of Northup’s situation in the film is revealed through his attempts at escape and his pleas to white men to deliver written messages to his family, asking for their help in freeing him. And while the depictions of heartbreak on Ejiofor’s face are certainly moving at most times, extended clips of them runs the risk, again, of desensitizing the film’s white audience members to Northup’s suffering through overexposure to that of Ejiofor.
Nevertheless, this small blip in the film’s camera work does not detract majorly from its powerful message. The movie, universally praised by even the toughest of critics, has been nominated for and has won many awards. It is a gripping tale of struggle and survival that is still playing in theaters, and though no one could label it easy viewing, it is a must-see for anyone old enough to appreciate it.