History in Black and White

Solomon Northup’s memoir of being kidnapped into slavery was published a year after “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and in a sense they became companion pieces – Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was supported by Northup’s real-life experiences. The memoir was a bestseller and went through several printings. Northup’s experiences added fuel to the abolitionist debate in the years before the Civil War. By the end of the 19th Century, though, the book was pretty much forgotten, and remained that way for over a hundred years. Now, in the powerful new film 12 Years A Slave, the story has been resurrected.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was born a free man. He lived with his wife and two young children in Saratoga Springs, New York, where he was a carpenter and a popular violinist. In 1841, he is approached by two itinerant performers with the request that he provide accompaniment for their performances as they travel south to Washington, DC. Solomon agrees, and when the performances are over and he is well-paid, he joins the men for a celebratory dinner before returning to Saratoga. Instead the men drug him, steal back his pay along with his possessions, and sell him to slavers. He awakes with chains on his wrists and ankles. When he protests to his captors, he’s severely beaten.

Given the name Platt by the slavers, Solomon is transported by ship to New Orleans to the slavers’ employer, Mr. Freeman (Paul Giamatti). Freeman holds his slave market in his house, where his customers can carefully inspect the merchandise. Solomon is sold to Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) a fair but ineffectual man who runs a lumber operation on his land. Solomon has hidden his literacy and schooling, as those are capital offenses in the world of slavery, but with Ford he lets some of his intelligence show by suggesting a quicker way to get the lumber from the forest to Ford’s mill. In gratitude, Ford gives Solomon a fiddle. However, Solomon’s act has earned the enmity of Ford’s manager, Tibeats (Paul Dano). When Tibeats attacks him, Solomon fights him off, but his victory is short-lived. Tibeats returns with other men and almost lynches Solomon. He’s stopped only by the slave overseer, whose argument is based solely on economics – Tibeats doesn’t have the right to take Ford’s property.

Solomon is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a brutal cotton plantation owner. There Solomon meets Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a young woman who is the best cotton picker of Epps’ slaves, but who has also become Epps’ sexual obsession, much to the disgust of Epps’ cruel wife (Sarah Paulson). While working on a gazebo, Solomon also meets Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian itinerant carpenter who believes in the abolition of slavery. Bass may be Solomon’s salvation, but after all the betrayals he’s suffered at the hands of white men, can he trust Bass? (Along with this short role, Pitt was a producer of the film through his production company, Plan B.)

The adapted screenplay by John Ridley is one of the best of the year, beautifully capturing the style of speech of the 1840s. Ridley had mostly worked in television as both a writer and producer on shows such as “Third Watch” and “The Wanda Sykes Show.” He compressed the story some – Solomon had other owners than Ford and Epps during his 12 years of captivity – but in doing so he’s crafted the story that’s accessible to the modern audience. Matching the quality of the script is the work by British director Steve McQueen putting it on the screen. The visuals are stunning, and his work with his actors is flawless.

Of the supporting cast, two stand out. Fassbender’s Epps is like a raw nerve – suspicious, sly, and brutal. The emotional heart of the movie is Lupita Nyong’o. In her role as Patsey, she embodies the corrosiveness of slavery. There is no way for her to escape the brutality of her world where she can be whipped until her back looks like bloody ground meat for imagined infractions. In one devastating scene, she pleads with Solomon to take her to the river and drown her, to do “what I do not have the courage to do myself.”

But the movie belongs to Ejiofor since it’s told almost completely from his viewpoint, and he gives an Oscar-worthy performance in his restraint. There is no histrionic railing against his fate; this is a story of survival, of doing whatever is necessary to survive in the hope of returning to his family. Instead of vocal thunder, there is electricity in Ejiofor’s eyes. The restraint makes it all the more devastating to watch.

McQueen doesn’t pull any punches in his depiction of slavery, and the inherent violence of the system is displayed in a matter-of-fact way. There has been a revisionist sentiment in some quarters recently that has tried to present slavery as paternalistic and even beneficial to blacks. 12 Years A Slave puts the lie to that nonsense. Long after his death, Solomon Northup gets to testify once again against that inhuman institution.

Don’t judge this movie by what it does in the box office. Box office success these days is based on multiple viewings, and that will not be the case with 12 Years A Slave. It would be hard to watch it twice, but it should be watched once.

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