New film “12 Years A Slave” has lasting impact on moviegoers
By Michele B. Seabrook, Contributing Writer
Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years A Slave” is a deeply affecting and visually stunning film. It brings the horrors of slavery– both the subtle daily indignities and the extreme violence, degradation, and trauma–into sharp and unforgettable focus.
The film stars the unknown Chiwetel Ejiofo as Soloman Northup. a prosperous and musically talented free black living in 1841 Saratoga, New York. Northup is conned, kidnapped, and sold into slavery with no legal recourse. In the beginning of the film, Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), Solomon’s first owner, tries to buy a woman and her young daughter to keep them together.
When the slave seller refuses, Ford asks, “Do you have no compassion?” Ford, however, buys the woman anyway, separating her from her daughter and casting her into a deep depression. Solomon is eventually helped to freedom by a white Canadian (Brad Pitt) who pontificates on the injustice of slavery to Solomon’s more malevolent second master, Master Epps (Michael Fassbender). These characters show the film’s dedication to exploring the various gradations of evil and complicity present within the slave system.
McQueen and his script seamlessly integrate the historical realities of the day with a greater commentary on the nature of evil. “12 Years A Slave” is at the same time a story specific to slavery and one that transcends its narrative function. Certain ironies and inconsistencies present within the antebellum South are explored with a keen sense of history.
The intimacy with which blacks and whites lived is portrayed most notably through the interactions of Master Epps and his favored “queen of the field,” the beautiful and prolific cotton-picker Patsy. His desire for Patsy is clear to all, and when the slaves are brought in to his parlor to dance, his wife strikes her head with a bottle of liquor, commanding Epps to sell her. This jealous rage, backgrounded by the whimpering cries of the injured Patsy, is a snapshot of the strange manifestations of human nature the culture of slavery brought into sharp relief.
The film, set mostly in Louisiana, is a directorial triumph. McQueen’s virtuosity gives scenarios which the viewer may have seen in other films a more visceral impact. One such scene, during which many viewers covered their eyes and ears, was an extended shot of Solomon struggling to maintain his contact with the ground while stuck in a noose. His feet are shown stepping up and down on the mud below him while he chokes and continuously moves his neck to avoid suffocating. This scene, disturbing and unforgettable, is representative of the entire film. While it is difficult to believe, after a scene such as this, that there could be anything more striking to follow, there are a number of such moments.
“12 Years A Slave,” while difficult to watch and even more difficult to forget, is an important film and the most intelligent and impactful portrayal of slavery this reviewer has ever seen. It is a superbly acted and nuanced exploration of human nature as it plays out in extreme conditions, and a meditation on the strength of the human spirit and will to live.