Facing Harsh Realities in '12 Years a Slave'

3 years ago

I'll make it clear up front. 12 Years a Slave is not an easy movie to watch.  It transports us back to a time in American history that makes us all feel incredibly uncomfortable.  I'll be honest, as much as I wanted to see this lauded film I worried it would be too devastating. But that's exactly why everyone needs to see the movie. We need to come face-to-face, eye-to-eye with the harsh realities of America's past, and the movie is so well done that it makes it possible for all of us to do this.

Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The film is based on the autobiography of Solomon Northup, which was published in 1853 as Twelve Years a Slave: Narrative of Solomon Northup, a Citizen of New-York, Kidnapped in Washington City in 1841, and Rescued in 1853, From a Cotton Plantation Near the Red River, in Louisiana . It was in this book that Northup wrote:  “Think of it. For 30 years a man with all a man’s hopes, fears, and aspirations … then for 12 years a thing.” 

He wrote that because he was a free man at the start of his story in 1841, living well and happily with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs.  He was also a professional violinist who earned money from his art for a living. But like everyone else, he was worried about keeping up his family's standard of living, so when two white artists approached him about joining their circus and taking a quick jaunt to NYC, he agreed, never flinching for a moment that they might be dishonest.  

But then everything changed. The two men turned out to be kidnappers,  and he was sold into slavery and transported to the Deep South. During the 12 years he is held captive, the most catastrophic things happen to him.  He is nearly lynched, beaten half to death, forced to whip his friend, witness to several slaves get raped and beaten. He has to lie to the slave-owner to save his life before getting knifed. He watches the pain of a fellow slave have her children taken from her. He watches and experiences so much pain and suffering that it is unimaginable.

As a viewer of the film, these scenes are very difficult to watch. You will shed tears, you will gasp and put your hand to your mouth in disbelief, you will feel shame for this period of history, you will want to go home and research it even more. You will also wonder why more films haven't been made about this serious subject. 

There have been other films over the years that depicted slavery: Beloved, Django Unchained, Glory, Gone with the Wind, Roots, Lincoln, Uncle Tom's Cabin.  However this is presented in a way that seems the most realistic, and as viewers we know it was based on a memoir. It is almost unbearable to watching the scenes with all of the white people living pretty on their plantations, abusing the slaves and treating them like animals. This has to be a wake up call for some of us who may not realize the depth of the hatred and inhumanity that existed in our country a mere 150 years ago.

Steve McQueen, the director of this film, apparently discovered the book and swore to himself after reading it from cover to cover that a movie had to be made about Solomon's experience. It's kind of odd that it took a British (and not American) citizen to bring such an important and harrowing true story to the screen. 

The film itself has a Shakespearean quality to it - the dialogue is short and full of words like "thou" and "thee" and "beseech." The music is eerie and dismal and the set, costumes and locations all depict life during the 1800s.  

He also put careful and excellent trust in his casting director. Some of my favorite actors appear in the film including Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti and newer favorites like Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Oscar-nominated Michael Fassbender (I don’t think he can ever play a nice person again) and Oscar-nomined Lupita Nyong’o. These actors were all blessed and cursed with this film: Blessed for being in such an important film, cursed for playing such difficult roles and living and breathing the cruelty of a difficult, horrible period.

When Solomon is first captured, he is told, "Survival is not about certain death. It's about keeping your head down." He looks another enslaven person in the eye and tells him he will do whatever it takes to live. For 12 years he is told that he is no better than livestock. But he gets through it and gets out, with help from one white abolitionist played by Brad Pitt, also a producer on the film.

From the minute I first set eyes on the eyes of Ejiofor as Solomon, I was struck by a kind of fire. Inside his eyes I felt the weight of the 19th century reality of slavery.  His Oscar nomination is so well deserved as is the one received by Nyong’o, who brilliantly portrayed fear and shame for being the slave owner's mistress and continuous rape victim.

After the book came out, Northup traveled around the world lecturing on slavery, and went on to help free slaves in Vermont around 1863. Northup unsuccessfully tried to sue his captors. As a black man he was banned from giving evidence against white people in court, but the book became his sweet revenge.

And it is our sweet revenge...because in 2014 I think we all need a reminder about the harsh realities of this dark period in American history. 

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