I watched Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave about slavery in 19th century America based on a true story of a man called Solomon Northup who was kidnapped in Washington DC and subjected to slavery in the year 1841. The movie is based on a 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup who worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana for twelve years before his release.
The movie is a heart wrenching tale and I must say made me emotional in many of the scenes. The true life portrayal of Solomon Northup by Chiwetel Ejiofor is something words fail to describe. His pain, his desperation to survive, his loneliness, his hope to be free again is something very true to life and no wonder he is a mighty contender to this year’s Academy Award
Coming to the story, in 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free negro working as a skilled carpenter and fiddle player, and living with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. Two men (Scoot McNairy and Taran Killam) offer him a two-week job as a musician, but they drug Northup and he wakes up in chains, about to be sold into slavery.
He is shipped to New Orleans, and is re-named “Platt”, the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia. Beaten repeatedly, he is ultimately sold by upscale, unrepentantly callous slave-trader Theophilus Freeman (Paul Giamatti) to plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Northup manages to stay on good terms with Ford, a relatively benevolent master which in turn is despised by the racist carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who begins verbally harassing him.
The tensions between Tibeats and Northup escalate; Tibeats attacks Northup, and Northup fights back. In retaliation, Tibeats and his friends attempt to lynch Northup, but are driven away by the plantation’s foreman who leaves Northup to suffer in the noose. Northup is eventually cut down by Ford and he later wakes up on the floor of Ford’s house, being protected from Tibeats and his friends by Ford with a gun. Ford explains that in order to save Northup’s life he must be sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Northup attempts to reason with Ford, explaining that he is actually a free man but he is still sent away.
Epps believes his right to abuse his slaves is biblically sanctioned, and encourages the slaves to accept their allegedly predestined, divinely-sanctioned fate by frequently reading to them various pro-slavery Bible verses, both real and fraudulent. Epps also requires each slave to pick at least 200 pounds of cotton every day, or be beaten. A young female slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) daily picks over 500 pounds and is praised lavishly, and coveted lustfully, by Epps. His wife (Sarah Paulson) is envious of the attention her husband pays to Patsey and violently abuses the girl at every opportunity after Epps publicly declares that he’d choose the slave-girl over his wife, if forced. Epps repeatedly rapes Patsey, who asks for Northup’s help in committing suicide, but he refuses.
The days pass until one day he sees a ray of hope in the form of Bass (Brad Pitt) a Canadian carpenter who is against slavery. Northup requests Bass to help him out who does so risking his life by sending a letter to his friends in Saratoga Springs. The rest of the story reveals the quest of Northup getting his freedom and returning back to his family after 12 years of slavery.
McQueen does a fantastic job by sticking true to the actual story and leaves out the reprieve and Northup’s weak attempts at objectivity completely. McQueen uses silent and lingering wide shots, and close-ups of subtle shifts in facial expressions as mood-inducing hyphens in his narratives. One of the most memorable scenes in 12 Years a Slave is of Solomon, named by his employers Platt, hanging from a rope tied to a tree, his muddy feet just about touching the soil to keep himself alive. The frame captures other slaves going about their business. Shot from various angles in wide sweeps, set in grey light, this image distills the terrifying banality of the slave condition at that time.
Acting is first rate whether it is Chiwetel Ejiofor or Michael Fassbender who plays his cruel master Epps or Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey (she even won a best supporting actor award at the Golden Globe Awards). The scene where Nyong’o has an outburst before she is whipped tied to a post is quite powerful. The supporting cast is also wonderful especially Brad Pitt in a cameo who also happens to be one of the Producers of the movie. The language used in the dialogues has the formality and grace of that age, which makes the inhumanity of the story even more difficult to digest.
The movie is such that missing it will be a crime. Everything about the movie for me wins, the performances, the technical aspects, story & screenplay, dialogues, costumes, background score etc…
My Verdict: ***** A must watch.