Popcorn and Inspiration: ’12 Years a Slave’: The Truth Will Set You Free

November 4, 2020 Updated: November 4, 2020

R | | Biography, Drama, History | 8 November 2013 (USA)

1979’s TV mini-series “Roots” reduced the hallowed slave nostalgia of the 1939 film “Gone With The Wind” from a blazing bonfire to a heap of coals. 2013’s “12 Years A Slave” was the “whump!” of a bucket of cold water tossed on that fire pit. The burning sensation in our eyes wasn’t from acrid smoke, but tears.

man ties woman to tree in "12 Years a Slave"
Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender, L) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

What was slavery? For African-Americans it was lynchings, mutilations, solitary hotbox confinement, horse-whippings, gothic shackles, chains, and collars, a wide range of humiliation, cotton-picking unto death, being branded like cattle, rape-race-mixing, divide-and-conquer setting of “high-yellow” “mulattos” and “octoroons,” against deep blue-black African skin, “house” versus field” slaves, exclusion from manhood, and a centuries-old American stain of deep shame.

We Americans had never really taken a good, hard, collective look at all that, except piecemeal. It was still too violent for our modern sensibilities; we preferred to just talk about concepts. With “12 Years A Slave,” we finally had ourselves an unflinching look at this groundbreaking, many Oscars-deserving depiction of Antebellum slavery.

A Free Man, or so he Thought

man in grey hat in "12 Years a Slave"
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

In 1841, Solomon Northup, a highly accomplished African-American free man lived in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and children. He listed virtuoso violin playing among his many talents. Solomon is portrayed by British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, in the role of his lifetime.

In the film’s only weak bit of glossed-over narrative, Solomon naively falls for a slavery kidnapping long con, joining a traveling circus, where he’ll supposedly make a lot of money playing his instrument.

In Washington, D.C., the con men drug Solomon’s wine, chain him in his sleep, force him with vicious wooden-bat-beatings to take the name “Platt,” and put him in a line-up with other stripped-naked slaves, on an auction block in the deep South. He quickly learns to avoid death by dumbing down.

Black man in with slave plantation in backgroup in "12 Years a Slave"
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

His first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is nice enough, all slavery things considered. However, Ford is in debt to slave trader Theophilus Freeman (a chilling Paul Giamatti),

two men at a slave auction in "12 Year a Slave"
Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch, L) and Freeman (Paul Giamatti) discuss slaves at a slave auction, in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

and eventually Solomon’s off to his next master, cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps, fervently and convincingly played by Michael Fassbender, reminiscent of young Kevin Kline.

man holding lantern threatens slave with a knife in "12 Years a Slave"
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, L) is threatened at knife-point by his new master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Twelve years later, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a carpenter and abolitionist from Canada, is finally able, through happenstance, to come to Solomon’s aid.

True Images

This over-simplified synopsis is an intentionally minimalist framework, because plot is of little consequence here. This is a story of the physical and spiritual torment, forbearance, and endurance of African slaves in the American South; a heretofore never-seen portrayal of that reign of terror and violence that rings deeply true.

man on horse with gun in "12 Years a Slave"
Overseer (Dickie Gravois) on the lookout for runaway slaves in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Early buzz had it that the violence was too shocking. Well it is shocking. But a true telling of this particular swept-under-the-rug story should shock us to the core. This is no gratuitous gore-fest. This is a new strain of subdued, yet paradoxically and completely unnerving cinematic violence.

It takes the form of impeccably timed “common” acts of violence. Hits and slaps come out of nowhere, containing a heavy, percussive vehemence, captured both in sound-effect and entitled intention. At the time, I’d never heard the normally stoic (due to over-exposure) New York screening audience react so vocally.

The violence of a heavy glass decanter cracked across the dark, delicate features of a beautiful female slave, by the jealous wife of the master, is stunning. The menace in these hard hits hangs heavy. There’s deep violence in Northup’s violin’s snapped strings, not to mention the worst whipping scene ever captured on film—not even Denzel Washington’s runaway-slave whipping in “Glory” comes close.

black man with horsewhip and female slave tied to tree in "12 Years a Slave"
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, L) and Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

However, there’s an almost cathartic release in knowing one has witnessed a true thing and understood humankind’s plight a little deeper.

The movie’s most haunting scene is an understated one of such protracted, subdued violence it boggles the mind. The eerie background of cicadas, calling in the heat-wave woods lends a chill to the indifference of witness-bearing slave masters and mistresses as they go about their business.

man hanging from tree branch in "12 Years a Slave"
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), enduring a 12-hour semi-lynching in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Indifferent to a semi-lynching, where Northrups’s toes are barely touching the ground. He can avoid strangulation with the utmost effort, all the live-long day. If he falls prey to exhaustion—he dies. We’ve not seen these images before. And yet it’s good to look at it and know its truth.

hanging man being given water in "12 Years a Slave"
Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), enduring a semi-lynching is given water by a house slave in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Artistic Direction

Director McQueen is also a painter. His arty-ness has been mocked, but McQueen’s painter’s eye is keen and never slick. The cinematography here is cinematic art; the colors captured in sunsets, sunrises, Southern woodlands, as well as a slave’s breakfast plate of purple blackberries and white biscuits are painterly and deeply satisfying.

It’s both a visual and an audial repast. The great Hans Zimmer was clearly inspired on this scoring, and on sound design. Insect-song, birdsong, and slave-song, Northup’s violin playing, sound barrier-breaking bullwhip cracks, and near horror-film sound effects, all serve to create a slave-eye-view of the dread atmosphere hovering over the Georgia piney woods.

“Schindler’s List” was perhaps the definitive artistic Holocaust movie. “12 Years A Slave” is hands-down the definitive depiction of slavery in America. It took a British director to get the proper perspective.

slaves picking cotton in "12 Years a Slave"
Field-hand slaves picking cotton in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Professor James G. Basker of Barnard College, a leading authority on American slavery and editor of “American Antislavery Writings: Colonial Beginnings to Emancipation” (2012), contributes the following to the Epoch Times:

“On the historical side, I would say that slave narratives were the most powerful anti-slavery writing and testimony of all literary forms—novels, poems, sermons, speeches—and of them, Solomon Northup’s “Twelve Years a Slave” was among the most powerful in all of the 19th century.

Published in 1853, just a year after Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” it showed that even fiction writers fell short of the full horrors of slavery. No wonder the slave states were desperate to censor and criminalize all anti-slavery writing, above all true stories like Solomon Northup’s.”

Slave owner caresses slave girl in "12 Years a Slave"
Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), and Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

See this movie; honor and pay homage to the truth—it’ll hurt, but also heal. You’ll be glad you mustered your courage to have a look. It’s a landmark film, and hopefully reduces the lag time between human holocausts and genocides, and our collective real-time grasp of their horrifying reality.

man on foot man on horseback in "12 Years a Slave"
The neighboring slave-bullying man-boy Tibeats (Paul Dano, L) and his slave overseer (Dickie Gravois) in “12 Years a Slave.” (Twentieth Century Fox)

Speaking of Genocides …

And speaking of the lag time between the horror of genocides, injustices in general, and public awareness of them—there’s a brand new form of slavery afoot; being foisted upon the American public. It’s highly misunderstood, because it’s posing as its opposite and looks like a good thing.

Many Americans are unaware that the Communist Party is behind the scenes of the Black Lives Matter movement, turning looters and protestors across the nation into that mechanism within the communist machine known as “useful idiots.” NBA players and Hollywood movie stars have become the Chinese Communist Party’s favorite useful idiots.

BLM co-founder Patrisse Cullors said in a newly surfaced video from 2015 that she and her fellow organizers are “trained Marxists.” Karl Marx wrote: “With Satan I have struck my deal, He chalks the signs, beats time for me, I play the death march fast and free.”

Death March? We should think twice about these protest marches. The trained Marxists don’t understand that what they think is a march for freedom from slavery past (and present “systemic racism”) is really Marx’s meticulously planned death march, and if communism is allowed to take hold in this country, not only will African-Americans never be freed from slavery, but the entire nation will become slaves. And not just for 12 years.

’12 Years a Slave’
Director: Steve McQueen III
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Paul Giamatti, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Lupita Nyong’o, Alfre Woodard, Brad Pitt, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 14 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 8, 2013
Rating: 5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch