Movie director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is an intense work that challenges viewers to imagine what it was like to be a slave. It isn’t the first film about slavery in the United States but it may be one of the few that forces you to challenge the lies peddled by media and storytellers. Written by John Ridley, it tells the true story of Solomon Northrup, an African-American, who, in 1841, was sold into slavery. We are introduced to Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor)http://http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chiwetel_Ejiofor as a slave cutting sugar cane on a plantation. Through a series of memories, when Solomon was living in New York with his wife and two children, we learn a familiar story that tugs at our heart strings and brings tears to our eyes.
As a man used to the civil liberties of freedom, Solomon gladly accepts the invitation to dine with two White traveling artists in Washington while his family travels elsewhere. With flowing wine and talks of music, a drunken Solomon soon finds himself shackled and chained in a basement for days in preparation to be sold into slavery. As he moves from master to master, you can’t help but wait for the moment when twelve years comes to an end. During the movie, there is no awareness of the years passing and Mr. McQueen keeps the movie moving efficiently with emotion. Ejiofor make you feel it in your bones. When he yells in pain from the beating of a whip, so do you. You feel his sense of embarrassment when bathing and sleeping in front of others and his need to remain alive. McQueen’s delicate dance of displaying Solomon’s formal education while managing to conceal it as not to anger the White man, grasps you with force.
In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
This is a story of one individual but also a familiar situation for many that we will never know. Solomon was a black man born into freedom, living in the North, yet couldn’t vote but he enjoyed some of the privileges of whiteness. Once enslaved, his need to survive deepens. We are aware of his internal struggle to maintain his dignity as well as his life on each plantation. Solomon witnesses and experiences brutality at the hands of crazed owners who take pleasure in the hedonistic act of beatings. With a movie so heavy with slavery’s extreme, it was almost ironic and laughable to see the masters holding church services frequently while peddling the Lord’s verse.
At one point in the movie, Solomon is strung up in tree in the blazing heat while the master’s wife and plantation hand watch over him and the other slaves eventually return to business as usual. Barely able to step on his toes in very moist mud, he manages to survive being in a noose for almost a day. McQueen’s brilliant display of performances throughout the movie takes the viewer on an emotional roller coaster ranging from tears to anger to disgust then rage.
“12 Years a Slave” is not an easy film to watch. At times, it’s unbearable but, it’s one that should be seen because it will make you think twice about what it’s like to be free.
Directed by Steve McQueen; written by John Ridley, based on the book by Solomon Northrup; released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.
With: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northrup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps) Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Ford)