1979’s TV mini-series “Roots” reduced the hallowed slave nostalgia of 1939’s “Gone With The Wind” from a blazing bonfire to a heap of coals.
“12 Years A Slave” is the “whump!” of a bucket of ice water being tossed on the remnants of that fire pit. The burning sensation in your eyes won’t be billowing acrid smoke, but tears.
What was slavery? For African-Americans it was lynchings, mutilations, solitary hotbox confinement, horse-whippings, humiliation, cotton-picking til you dropped dead, branding, rape-race-mixing, divide-and-conquer setting of “high-yellow” “mulattos” and “octoroons,” against deep blue-black African skin, “house” vs. field” slaves, exclusion from manhood, and a centuries-old American stain of deep shame.
Have we ever really taken a good, hard, collective look at all that, except piece-meal? Is it too violent for our sensitive sensibilities? Should we just sit around and talk about concepts? Or should we perhaps have ourselves an unflinching gander at the groundbreaking, many Oscars-deserving, “12 Years A Slave?” We emphatically should.
In 1841, Solomon Northup, a highly accomplished African-American free man lived in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and children. He lists 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.
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 never-better Paul Giamatti), and eventually Solomon’s off to his next master, cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps, fervently and convincingly played by Michael Fassbender, reminiscent of the young Kevin Kline.
Twelve years later, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a carpenter and abolitionist from Canada, is finally able through happenstance to come to Solomon’s aid.
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 slaves in the Antebellum South; a heretofore never-seen depiction of that reign of terror and violence that rings deeply true.
Early buzz had it that the violence was too shocking. Well it is shocking. But shouldn’t a true telling of this particular swept-under-the-rug story shock us? It 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.
Never has this reviewer heard a 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.
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 about their business. We’ve not seen these images before. And yet we should look upon all of it and know its truth.
Director McQueen is also a painter. Some mock his arty-ness, but McQueen’s artist’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.
Friend and 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.”
See this movie. Honor and pay homage to the truth. It will hurt, but also heal. You’ll be glad you mustered your courage to go. 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.
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
Release Date: Oct. 18
Running time: 1 hour 33 minutes
Reviewer gives this film 5 stars out of 5.