What would be your worst nightmare upon sleeping? What would be the worst thing that could happen to you that you could think about upon waking up? I suppose not waking up at all would be the worst, but perhaps almost has bad would be waking up and finding out that you had been ripped away from family and friends and imprisoned. And that imprisonment is intended to last the rest of your life.
Just how gut retching and terrifying such a discovery upon waking would be is beyond describing. And experiencing it would be akin to plunging into the depths of hell. Such is the basic story of 12 Years a Slave, the recently released new movie. All about a successful family man, who makes his living as a musician in the town of Saratoga New York State. In 1841 he is deceived by two men who promise him work. They get him drunk and then while he is passed out sell him into slavery. He works on various plantations for 12 years before he is finally liberated. During all this he misses his wife and 2 children. He is eventually released and reunited with his family.
Has sad as this tale is, what makes it much sadder is that it is a true story. It is that which makes the film even more moving. Later I will discuss the factual background to the story but for now I will discuss the film as a film.
In the story our protagonist Solomon Northrup is a successful American Musician, who plays the violin for a living and lives in Saratoga New York State. There he lives with his wife and two daughters, quite happily. Two strangers offer him a two week working contract and lure him to Washington DC. There they get him drunk and sell him into slavery. No doubt picking up a pretty penny for the act.
He protests and is beaten for his pains. He is eventually sold south in the state of Louisiana. There he is sold to one owner who is basically a decent man. Eventually he has run-ins with one of the White workers on the plantation, (A sort of Overseer.) and is sold to another owner, mainly to protect him from this person’s vengeance.
The new owner is a capricious, vicious psycho who seems to delight in mindless and petty cruelty and acts of tyranny to say nothing of the occasional act of unbridled viciousness. Solomon tries to arrange for a letter to be smuggled out, but the man Solomon trusts to do this instead tells Solomon’s owner and only quick thinking by Solomon prevents what could only be called a severe beating.
Solomon later runs into a Canadian who is working at the plantation who agrees to write a letter, although doing that could get him killed, to Saratoga New York. A shop keeper from Saratoga who knew Solomon fetches him with the aid of a local Sheriff, much to the displeasure of Solomon’s owner. Solomon is reunited with his family after 12 years!
The script is excellent and remarkably close to the book on which it is based. Instead of telling us how horrible this all is it shows us. In fact the film instead of beating us over the head with the evils of slavery shows its brutality, its casual horror in a matter of fact manner. Thus making it if anything even more terrible. The script illustrates this by avoiding long scenes of exposition and concentrates on showing. Thus we get the casual way children are ripped away from a mother and her cries are simply ignored. Such things aren’t in this world unusual they are routine.
The acting is excellent by virtually everyone. Chiwetel Ejiofor who plays Solomon is amazing. In a role that would seem to call for emotive acting, he deliberately, most of the time underplays the role. A sigh, or single raised eyebrow conveys acres of meaning and pain. Here is a man who learns and learns well that he must hide his anguish in order to survive. If he exposes his pain he will die. And dying is not something Solomon will do if he can help it for he intends to return to his family. And Chiwetel conveys that convincingly.
Benedict Cumberpatch plays Solomon’s first Louisiana master William Ford. The man is shown to be a decent and good man. However he is caught in the coils of a system that corrupts his good intentions quite thoroughly. Cumberpatch is convincing in showing a man who is trying to be decent but in the end the corruption of the system destroys his intentions. Thus, for example, a female slave whose mourning the loss of her children through sale, is sold away because Ford's wife can’t bear to hear her weep.
Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, is Solomon’s second plantation owner is portrayed as a power corrupted psycho. He is an example of power corrupting absolutely. He doesn’t just tyrannize over his slaves he treats his wife with studied vicious contempt. She in turn takes it out on the slaves. Edwin aside from vicious sadistic beatings uses his authority over his slaves to force them up late at night and making them dance. He is a brute and frankly a monster and quite frightening. Michael is quite convincing in the role.
Lupita Nyong'o who plays Patsy is the unfortunate object of Edwin’s lust and Edwin’s wife’s rage, which she dares not direct against her husband so she directs it against Patsy, is amazing. She is shown to be an admirable and able worker and yet her position causes her extreme mental anguish that is almost as bad as the severe whipping that nearly kills her. Slavery has trapped her and so when she asks Solomon to kill herself it is completely believable and understandable. Lupita puts out an acting performance that is in the end even better than Chiwetel’s.
The other performances are solid and good most notably the brief cameo by Brad Pitt who plays Bass, a Canadian, who secretly agrees to help Solomon by writing a letter to Saratoga New York State, and doing so.
The film is well shot and great effort was made to make, sets costumes etc., correct. The result is a well shot film. In fact the costumes are so good I can see Oscar nominations for best costume design. The style of the film is not to dwell on the horror of what it portrays but instead to show it as the common everyday facts of life in that situation. Things as mentioned are shown not described and by making them commonplace the film makes them even more terrible. Also the film lacks, (Thank God!!), the violence porn style that makes the horrors shown merely an excuse for the audience to get a delicious frisson of horror, and vicariously enjoy the violence depicted.
This is not the first time this tale was filmed there is a PBS film of Solomon Northup’s ordeal from 1984. It is actually pretty good but not up the high quality of this movie, which in a sense is a remake.1
As for the accuracy of the tale. It appears that Solomon Northup’s tale is has far as we can know accurate.2
It is indeed very sad to report that there was indeed a practice of tricking, drugging etc., Free Blacks and selling them into servitude in the South before the Civil War. It is also sad to note that attempts like Solomon Northup’s to punish his kidnappers were indeed unavailing. In fact it appears that a few thousand Free Blacks were indeed enslaved in this manner before the Civil War. That this practice fuelled Abolition sentiment among Free Blacks and many White Northerners is also beyond dispute. It is remarkable however how little account of this is given in discussions of sources of North / South tensions before the war. The fact that Southern and sadly Northern Courts seemed to have had little interest in punishing such breaches of the law, which along with Southern lack of interest in punishing those who engaged in the African slave trade, (Illegal from 1809 on.), certainly exasperated tensions over slavery.
As for the horrors of slavery shown in the film. Some might carp that they are overdrawn and extreme. Aside from the fact that these horrors are highlights spread out over 12 years, what the film actually highlights is not so much that these horrors, the whippings, beating etc., are “typical” in terms of happening every day, but that they are “typical” in terms of what could happen and frequently, on a year by year basis, did happen. Slavery was quite simply a brutal system of coercive labour giving of group of people what amounted to totalitarian authority over others. Regardless of whether the authority wielded was benign or brutal the authority was absolute.
The evidence does in fact indicate that American slavery was overall a brutal system of authority and further that physical conditions on Southern plantations replicated conditions in the worst of US urban slums of the times. So the slaves got autocratic rule along with poverty.3
The horrors of slavery in our age when we, by both time and geography are shielded from it have to be shown to us. Sadly the human imagination simply cannot, most of the time, imagine what it is like to be under someone’s near total control. Our imaginations need a boost.
This is not a film that is a pleasure to sit through in the slightest. It is a real life horror story. Still it should be seen.
1. See Solomon Northup's Odyssey, Wikipedia Here.
2. 12 Years a Slave (film), Wikipedia Here.
3. For American Slavery see, Jones, Norrece T., Born A Child of Freedom Yet a Slave, Wesleyan University Press, London, 1990, Blassingame, John W., The Slave Community, Revised and Enlarged Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979, Stampp, Kenneth M., The Peculiar Institution, Vintage Books, New York, 1956, Editors, David, Paul A., Gutman, Herbert G., Sutch, Richard, Temin, Peter, Wright, Gavin, Reckoning with Slavery, Oxford University Press, New York, 1976.