12 Years A Slave

Distributed by: FOX Searchlight Pictures

Reviewed by Melissa Minners


                When I first saw the trailer for 12 Years a Slave, I was intrigued.  The idea of a free black man living in New York tricked and sold into a life of slavery was deplorable.  The fact that the film was based on a true story - a book written by the man who went through it - was shocking.  Call me naive, but, although I have read the horrific accounts of slavery in the United States, the idea that this kind of thing happened during the 1800s still can tend to surprise me.  I knew I had to see this film.

                12 Years A Slave is the story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man living with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York.  In 1841, Solomon's wife (Kelsey Scott) heads off to her steady cooking job with their two children (Quvenzhané Wallis and Cameron Zeigler).  They will be gone a couple of months and Solomon promises that he will not stay idle while waiting for her to return.  A skilled carpenter and violinist, Solomon plans to find steady work until they return.  So, when two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) approach him offering a gig playing violin for a traveling show, Solomon quickly accepts the invitation, traveling with the men to Washington, D.C.

                Unbeknownst to Solomon, these men are about to sell him into slavery.  He is drugged and, when he wakes up, Solomon finds himself in chains.  His captors tell him that he is a runaway slave from Georgia named Pratt and beat him when he protests with the truth.  Learning that, in order to survive, he must be compliant and bide his time, Solomon is sold to a kindly master, a man named William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who can see that there is more to Solomon than meets the eye. 

                But even in Ford's home there are atrocities that shock Solomon.  He watches as families are separated and listens to the callousness of Ford's wife as she suggests that some food and rest will help the mother (Adepero Oduye) forget her children.  He watches that same mother get sold to someone else because Ford's wife can't put up with the mother's everlasting sorrow.  And then, there is the harsh realities of the overseers, especially that of John Tibeats (Paul Dano).  Jealous of Solomon's carpentry abilities and his importance to Ford, Tibeats does everything he can to sabotage him.  In the end, an unfortunate incident between Tibeats and Solomon forces Ford to sell Solomon to a local cotton plantation owner named Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). 

                You see, Ford thinks he is saving Solomon's life and can't be swayed by Solomon's protestations about his past.  But Ford is actually sending Solomon into worse danger, for Edwin Epps isn't just a harsh taskmaster on his plantation.  He is more than overzealous towards the punishment of his slaves.  The man takes joy in distributing that punishment and, when drinking, allows his truly psychotic sadistic nature to rise to the surface.  His wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) is jealous of her husband's attention to his best worker in the fields, Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) and shows off her sadistic and cruel nature in acts against Patsey and against her own husband.

                Solomon watches as his master attempts to break his spirit along with that of the other slaves on the plantation.  He tries in vain to prevent what atrocities he can and stands witness to countless others he can never hope to prevent.  And all the while, Solomon holds on to the belief that somehow he will be released from this hell and returned to his family.

                To say that the story of Solomon Northrup is emotional is an understatement.  As the ending credits of 12 Years a Slave rolled, all I could hear in the theater was a bunch of sniffling.  No one could speak, so shocked and saddened they were by what they saw.  Can this sort of thing have actually happened in our America?  I'm sure that, despite the fact that this movie is based on a true story, some folks left that theater in denial, believing that the movie producers made the film more harsh than the reality.  The truth is, this was the state of America during the times of slavery and we should be reminded of that fact, lest we forget when speaking on other countries' perceived horrific acts toward their peoples.  After all, as history has shown, we are not above such atrocities as a society ourselves.

                The acting in this film was amazing and utterly believable.  There is not one single moment where you think that Chiwetel Ejiofor is not actually Solomon Northup; not one moment when you think that the hate boiling in Michael Fassbender as Epps is acting; not one single moment when you feel that the anguish of Adepero Oduye and Lupita Nyong'o aren't real and tangible feelings.  Ejiofor has a knack for expressing emotion without saying a word and the director of this film took full advantage of this.  In fact, some of the most poignant moments of this film feature no vocals and no actions, just views of Ejifor's facial and body language from various angles.

                The atrocities expressed in this film may seem harsh to some, but reflect actual events that have taken place on plantations and other slave labor locales and should be paid close attention to.  The makers of this film made certain that the slave market, the whippings, the hangings, etc. were graphic and utterly believable for a reason - this was a harsh reality of life for slaves and, in order to understand all that Solomon Northup went through, we must bare witness to it ourselves.  I thought they did an excellent job in trying not to hold back despite the graphic nature of the scenes.

                The musical score for this film by Hans Zimmer was incredibly dramatic and helped drive the hopelessness of Solomon's position home to the viewer.  Many of the songs are traditional tunes of the times, including the waltz's and other dance music played by Solomon throughout the film.  Songs sung by the laborers in the fields also brought the experience home to the viewers, speaking of the labor and the hope for eventual spiritual release.

                12 Years a Slave is a movie well-worth seeing, whether or not you have a squeamish disposition.  Well acted and directed, this movie speaks of the harsh realities of our history and should be viewed by all, if only to remind us of where we have been and where we never want to venture again. 


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