12 Years a Slave

I have often heard it said that slavery is America’s original sin.  Even if you take away the brutal nature of the institution, the hypocrisy of a nation founded on principles of egalitarianism allowing the practice of slavery on its shores has hounded us down the centuries.  The persistent prejudices and lingering resentments from those years add to the troubled mix of race relations in this country to this day.

But of course the violence inherent in any slave trading environment cannot properly be ignored.  Coercing people to work for no pay requires tools of domination of both the physical and psychological variety.  And unless the slave owner is a sociopath with no inherent sympathy for anyone, it requires him to convince himself that slaves are not people. 

This aspect of America’s slave holding past has never been adequately addressed in either the movies or on television.  Django Unchained is a cartoonish revenge fantasy.  Gone with the Wind ignored that aspect in its determined nostalgia for the antebellum south.  Roots comes close but was constrained by being on television, even though they were given an unprecedented amount of leeway for the time.

This is not a topic that makes American audiences feel good about themselves.

12 Years a Slave is based on a memoir by Solomon Northrup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.  Northrup is a free black man in Saratoga, New York in 1841.  He has a wife and two children and he makes a good living as a musician.  But of course he could always use more money so when two circus performers approach him about going to Washington, DC and playing for their show for two weeks, he readily agrees.  They take him out to dinner at a fancy restaurant, get him drunk and the next day he wakes up in a slave holding pen within sight of the capitol as one very effective shot demonstrates.  Thus begins a twelve year nightmare in which Northrup struggles not only to survive but to maintain his humanity in a system designed to strip it away from him.

There are many extant slave narratives, but I think that choosing this one was a smart decision.  Northrup is a congenial middle class man with much to lose.  People today can identify with him more easily than with an African kidnapped from his home or someone born a slave and unable to imagine another life.  The suffering of those people is no less tragic, mind you, but it is harder for us to understand.

Northrup comes to understand that suffering, however, and every hard earned lesson is etched in Ejiofor’s expressive face.  He is one of the best actors working today.  His arc from defiant to silently canny to finally desperate is compelling and believable throughout the film.  When he finally leaves the Epps plantation for the last time, his guilty look back at the slaves he is leaving behind is devastating.

Much has been said about Michael Fassbender’s performance as the psychotically sadistic Edwin Epps and the praises are well deserved but more troubling to me is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Ford, the man who buys Northrup when he first arrives in New Orleans.  Ford appears to be a compassionate man who recognizes Northrup’s intelligence and is willing to listen to his ideas but in the end he cannot get himself to recognize Northrup’s humanity.  Northrup runs afoul of the estate carpenter Tibeats, played by Paul Dano as a particularly odious bigot.  By coming up with a better way to get timber to the work site, Northrup contradicts Tibeats’ judgment.  The angry white man tries to string him up.  Ford cuts down Northrup, who spends a whole day standing on his tip toes with a noose around his neck while the rest of the estate’s staff goes about their business.  The master calls Northrup “exceptional” but thinks no good will come of it.  Ford is forced to sell Northrup to Epps for his own safety.  Northrup learns a hard lesson there to keep to himself and not to show that he’s exceptional in any way.  White men in this time and place do not like being shown up by black men.

Much credit goes to director Steve McQueen and his co-screenwriter John Ridley for not shying away from any aspect of this subject matter.  They show the effects of the lash and it is not pretty.  The casual use of violence and the fear and submission it instills is absolutely horrifying.

12 Years a Slave is an important and excellent film that attempts to address the root of one of this country’s most persistent problems.

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