Sunday, February 22, 2015

#1,651. 12 Years a Slave (2013)

Directed By: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Kenneth Williams, Michael Fassbender

Tag line: "The extraordinary true story of Solomon Northup"

Trivia: The tree where Solomon Northup sees several men being lynched was actually used for lynching and is surrounded by the graves of murdered slaves

Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave is based on the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a black man living in 1840’s New York who, despite being born free, is kidnapped, transported to Louisiana, and sold into slavery. Given the name “Platt” by his captors, Northup first becomes the “property” of plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a kind, decent man who, at one point, praises Solomon for devising a plan to transport lumber via a small waterway. Alas, not everyone is impressed with Solomon’s accomplishment, and when he has an altercation with hired hand John Tibeats (Paul Dano), Ford has no alternative but to sell Solomon to fellow plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

A drunk prone to violent outbursts, Epps is a hard, often savage master who, much to the chagrin of his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson), is also carrying on a sexual relationship with pretty female slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o). Knowing full well what Epps is capable of, and fearing he may never see his family again, Solomon (who, in order to survive, had to pretend he couldn’t read or write) takes a chance and approaches Canadian laborer Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), telling him his story and asking him to deliver a letter to his wife and two children back in New York, letting them know where he is. But will the message reach them in time?

Much like the ‘70s mini-series Roots, 12 Years a Slave doesn’t shy away from depicting the cruelties of slavery, not all of which involved physical violence. While bartering to sell his new shipment of slaves, trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) ignores the pleas of a young mother (Adapero Oduye) and separates her from her children, selling her son (Craig Tate) to another buyer and keeping the woman’s daughter (Storm Reid) for himself (being of mixed birth, the girl is sure to bring in big money). 

Yet as bad as this is, it pales in comparison to what Solomon and the other slaves are forced to endure while working on Edwin Epps’ plantation. Believing it’s his God-given right (he quotes a scripture passage that, in his mind, justifies a master’s superiority over his “property”), Epps regularly beats his slaves, sometimes over minor infractions (two receive lashings for picking slightly less cotton than they had the day before). In what is certainly the film’s most upsetting scene, Epps even has Patsey whipped for visiting a nearby plantation (the mistress of which is a black woman, played by Alfre Woodard). It truly is a horrible thing to behold (director McQueen goes so far as to show the flesh being torn from Patsey’s back with each successive lash).

The performances are exceptional: Michael Fassbender is unforgettable as the brutal Epps, and Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her portrayal of Patsey, who suffers the indignities of being her master’s “favorite” (the scene where Epps has his way with her is as troubling as any of the movie’s more violent moments). Standing above them all, however, is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, the free man thrown headfirst into a nightmare. The difficulties he faces over the course of these 12 years would have broken most men, but Solomon never gives up hope (as he says at one point, “I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy until freedom is opportune”, which is exactly what he does).

12 Years a Slave is, indeed, a tough film to watch, yet we do so because of Solomon Northup, whose desire to be free shines like a beacon in the darkness. He remains, from start to finish, a remarkable individual, and Ejiofor does a masterful job bringing him to life.

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