Title: 12 Years A Slave
By: Regency Enterprises
Seen on: February 21
This film was supposed to premiere on February 19, but the cinema I went to started the wrong film (Monument’s Men) and couldn’t switch it back. Fail, but it did give me an extra two days of anticipation. And man, did it deliver.
From the get-go, this film grips you. It is not like any other film about slavery I have ever seen. It doesn’t shy away from the brutality, the injustice and the evil that was the slave trade and slave-keeping. The story is fast-paced, which surprised me in a good way, and there’s not a lot of setup before it goes straight into the main part of the story; Solomon Northrup’s journey from one slave owner to another.
In short, Solomon Northrup is a free black man who gets kidnapped and sold into slavery. The beating and whipping he receives from his kidnappers is shown in all its “glory” and you can’t help but look away. It is almost too much, and you can’t help but be impressed and shaken. And it only gets worse from there. There is no way out without help, and Solomon doesn’t have or get any help for a long, long time. He gets sold to his first owner, Master Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch. William Ford is something of a kind man, treating his slaves better than expected and normal. He gifts Solomon, who goes by Platt by then, a violin, which is a precious gift for a slave, or for any man. Unfortunately Ford has a man under his service, Tibeats, who is cruel, taunting, and violent. The song he sings to the slaves when they first meet him makes you grit your teeth and trying to quench the urge to hit him. Very well done by Paul Dano.
Solomon stands up to Tibeats, earning himself a hanging by Tibeats, but he is saved by the plantation overseer. The overseer doesn’t cut him down however, and Solomon struggles to keep from choking by having to shuffle around the muddy ground on his tiptoes for hours until Ford comes back and cuts him down. And Steve McQueen, the director, shows it all. The fight between Solomon and Tibeats, the hanging, the agonizing hours of waiting and nearly dying. It is painful and cruel and I thoroughly hated Tibeats by the end.
Unfortunately, Ford has a debt to pay and he uses Solomon to do so. He sells him to Master Epps, a breathtaking role by Michael Fassbender. Epps is shockingly evil. He is a drunk, a violent man, easily provoked and angered, and dangerously religious. He is proud to be a slave owner, goes by “the slave breaker”. And that is exactly what he does. He breaks Solomon until there is nothing left of his fighting spirit, his will to live, or his hope. The slaves are whipped until their skin breaks so bad you can see bone and muscle, he rapes his favorite slave, Patsy (a wonderful part by Lupita Nyong’o), he abuses them to the point of cowering and fear, and he even blames a plague of cotton worm on them. Because he is such a righteous man, of course it’s the slaves that brought it upon him.
There is one thing worse than Edwin Epps though, and that is his wife. A small part, but Sarah Paulson plays it so magnificently that I actually started hating her character. I actually felt rage towards her. he is jealous of the way Epps treats Patsy, favors her, and she manipulates him into beating Patsy so bad she nearly dies. She puts violent thoughts in his head, she provokes him, she makes up lies so he goes off at the slaves, and she might even treat the slaves worse than Epps himself does. She goes so far as to physically hurt Patsy on several occasions. Seriously, my hands itched to be able to give some of it back.
I mentioned Patsy, played by Lupita Nyong´o, and she is the embodiment of everything we imagine slavery to be. She gets treated so badly it is almost unreal. Lupita Nyong´o does an amazing, stunning job of portraying the hurt, the pain, the despair, and the deep longing to just die. She asks Solomon to do it, but he can´t. And she doesn´t have the strength to do it herself. The most shattering moment is when Epps goes on a rampage and demands Solomon to whip her until `he sees bone`, and Solomon has no choice but to either do it or get shot. Again, the film doesn´t shy away from showing the blood sprays when the whip connects, and it is another one of those moments you want to look away. And then realize they didn´t have that luxury.
And of course I have to talk about Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup. Holy shit, but that man deserves all the awards. The decent from free man into the broken slave he ends up being is so heartbreaking you want to deny it is real. But it is, and Chiwetel Ejiofor portrays it brilliantly. I am without words to fully explain how impressed I am, how speechless I was when I exited the theater, and it is all because of him and his portrayal of Solomon. I cannot even begin to imagine what he has gone through filming this. It takes a lot of guts and bravery and commitment to do this. And he does it with such conviction and devotion, he becomes a hero, even when he stops fighting and giving in to his owners and masters. It is a glorious performance and I hope he wins the Oscar.
Help finally comes in the form of abolitionist Bass, played by Brad Pitt. Before Solomon meets Bass, he asks a white man that works on the Epps plantation as a cotton picker (a free man just making some money) for help. He offers him money that he earned from playing violin for rich white men in the state and asks the man to post a letter to his wife. He wants to trust the man, and finally he does, and of course he gets betrayed. The man rats him out to Epps, Epps confronts him with it and he barely manages to talk his way out of a whipping or beating. And then Bass comes around. Bass seems like a good man, he stands up to Epps on how he treats his slaves, and he is not afraid to speak up about equality, but after everything, Solomon is hesitant to trust him. Can you blame him?
In the end he does though, trust Bass, and despite his reservations, Bass posts a letter to Solomon’s friends and saves his life. The reunion with his family is heart wrenching. His kids are grown up, he has a grandson. It is a short scene though, because the story is not about that, and it is certainly not about a happy ending. Slavery doesn’t have a happy ending.
If I were to find one thing that I wished were different about this film, it wouldn’t be the confrontational way the story is told. That’s the best part of it. In your face, raw and harsh, but that is necessary. The one thing I wished were different is the perception of time passing by. Solomon spends 12 years as a slave, yet that doesn’t get highlighted enough in my opinion. There are no references to time, either in words or cinematography. I didn’t feel like 12 years passed, and I wished I did. That would have made it even more harrowing and stark, I think. It didn’t diminish the film in any way though.
The entire film is a rollercoaster of emotions, cruelty, and disbelief that it is all real. It. Is. All. Real. This happened. To someone real. Think about that when you watch it. People were treated like this. Worse than animals. Worse than criminals. Remember that. It’s not just a film, it is a real story, these people were real, and slavery still exists.