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A classic tale of the human spirit

"12 Years a Slave" is a powerful performance

POSTED: October 24, 2013 1:00 a.m.

There have only been a few times in my life when I knew upon first viewing I was watching a profound and significant film.

I knew it when I first saw “Night and Fog,” “Citizen Kane,” and “Bicycle Thieves.” And I knew it while watching “12 Years a Slave.”

Based upon Solomon Northup’s autobiographical account of being kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 and of the 12 years he endeavored to survive and return to his life as a free man, director Steve McQueen’s film is not only a powerful testament of the human will but also a truthful treatment of slavery that should become required viewing for everyone.

Because Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was born a free man, he is unacquainted with the horrors of slavery. His story plays out as Dorothy sojourning in Oz or, more appropriately, like Dante journeying ever deeper into hell.

Along the way, he is forced to serve many masters and meets many fellow slaves, all of whom are affected in various ways by their status as either human chattel or slaveholder.

Rather than reduce characters to broad stereotypes, as so many treatments of slavery do, the film embraces the complexity and diversity of relationships between master and slave, slave and slave, free men and slaves, and slave-holding husbands and wives.

Nor does the film portray Solomon as the exceptional, lone slave with the intelligence and bravery to resist. Each one of the enslaved characters finds his or her own way to resist, either physically or spiritually.

The movie represents slavery in all its cruel dimensions. Some scenes are incredibly difficult to watch, and for that, some will criticize it as exploitative. However, as McQueen pointed out recently, the movie contains only five acts of violence — hardly exploitative.

And anyone who has read Northup’s book, most of which has been painstakingly verified as accurate, will recognize the producers withheld a great deal of shocking content.

One of the most powerful elements of “12 Years a Slave” is how it reveals the brutality of behavior considered mundane within the slavery system.

The scene when Solomon is initially sold to a plantation owner is gut-wrenching on exactly that level. The seller, ironically named Freeman (Paul Giamatti), leads shoppers through a posh apartment stocked with human products with a smirking suavity suited to an exclusive clothing boutique. The potential buyers sip wine and peruse, while the slaves are displayed completely nude.

One buyer purchases Solomon and a woman named Eliza (Adepero Oduye), but a different buyer purchases her two children. Eliza desperately begs not to be separated from them. Meanwhile, Freeman and the buyers ignore her and casually conduct their business.

McQueen films the scene in one take and uses only natural sounds, forgoing any stylistic devices to artificially heighten the drama of the moment.

The posh setting, blasé demeanor of the sellers and buyers and understated style juxtaposed against Eliza’s torment is violent enough without embellishment.

Believe it or not, though, Eliza’s heartbreak pales in comparison to what another slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) endures. Patsey’s plight is what results when one person is treated as a subhuman pawn in a nightmarish domestic battle.

Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a notoriously vicious, alcoholic slave owner who twists Scripture to justify slavery. His wife (Sarah Paulson) is as vindictive as Lady Macbeth and extremely jealous of Patsey.

Mr. Epps openly dotes on Patsey and routinely rapes her, while Mrs. Epps physically punishes Patsey because of what her husband does. The Epps take out all of the hate they feel for each other and for themselves on Patsey, who in many ways personifies the cruelest aspects of slavery as an institution.

It’s impossible to overstate how strong the actors’ performances are. From Ejiofor, who brings a tremendous gravity and dignity to the lead role, to the many supporting actors with brief screen time, everyone hits exactly the right notes.

The story, acting and filmmaking artistry come together to create one of the most powerful experiences provided by a movie in this or any other year.

Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.


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