• Post category:Movies
  • Post last modified:September 15, 2020

12 Years a Slave: Land of the Unfree


12yearsaslaveThe historian Sue Eakin was born in Louisiana five decades after the end of the Civil War and she specialized in the plantation culture of her home state. In the 1960s, she came across a book that had been largely forgotten. “Twelve Years a Slave” by Solomon Northup told the story of how its author, a free Black man, had been drugged and kidnapped in New York and then sold as a slave in the South. Published shortly after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, the book helped enlighten Northerners of the atrocities that were part of the Southern lifestyle.

Along with a fellow historian, Sue Eakin researched the factual circumstances around Northup’s experiences. Steve McQueen’s film adaptation of the book will make sure that its story is never forgotten.

Offered a job in a circus
In 1841, a Black man called Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living with his wife and two kids in Saratoga Springs, New York. A skilled violinist, he is one day offered a job by two men to perform in a circus. However, after celebrating with the men, Solomon wakes up hungover the next morning – in chains. He’s transported to New Orleans along with other free Black men who have been kidnapped. There, he’s renamed “Platt” by a slave trader (Paul Giamatti) and sold to a plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Hoping to appeal to Ford’s good nature, Solomon cultivates a relationship with him and helps him come up with a waterway to transport logs downstream. However, Solomon also finds an enemy in the overseer (Paul Dano) and he soon learns that revealing his intellect and skills may land him in deeper troubles…

The horrors are sickeningly detailed
Many other films and TV projects have attempted to put the cruelty of slavery in the Old South on display, but this may be the most revolting experience yet. In a way, it comes as no surprise that McQueen is the right man for it. There has always been a very physical, tangible touch to the misery he’s portrayed in earlier films, from Bobby Sands’s hunger strike in Hunger (2008) to Brandon’s sex addiction in Shame (2011). It’s not a Steve McQueen film if you walk out of a theater and don’t feel queasy – but also moved at the same time. The suffering in this film feels so real because it is based on actual experiences, and its horrors are sickeningly detailed.

The twisted relationship between slave and owner is thoroughly explored. Two different slave drivers are compared, Ford and Edwin Epps (Fassbender). The latter is a monster, trapped in an unhappy marriage, deeply resentful and unpredictable; Fassbender gives a full-throated performance that comes close to being cartoonish but never crosses the line. The former is a more interesting man, obviously disgusted with parts of his own culture, but still too much a part of it (and too cowardly) to do anything about it.

Hans Zimmer’s score is quietly moving, but Ejiofor is the heart of the film, a tower of strength as a man who learns how to adapt to his new life in order to survive, even though it is clear what kind of toll it takes on him over the years. In the supporting cast, newcomer Lupita Nyong’o is an eye-opener as the girl Epps cannot resist.

The film was criticized in Slate by Peter Malamud Smith as one that offers simple comfort because our hero is miraculously freed after only 12 years. What about those who were born into the system and died as slaves? Well, yes. On the other hand, Northup’s account is a rare, genuine visit to a time and place that still echoes into our days. It’s impossible to deny its overwhelming emotional impact, as well as its educational value.

12 Years a Slave 2013-U.S-Britain. 134 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Brad Pitt, Dede Gardner, Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Steve McQueen, Arnon Milchan, Bill Pohlad. Directed by Steve McQueen. Screenplay: John Ridley. Book: Solomon Northup. Music: Hans Zimmer. Editing: Joe Walker. Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt… Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Alfre Woodard, QuvenzhanĂ© Wallis.

Trivia: The story was previously filmed as a TV movie, Solomon Northup’s Odyssey (1984).

Oscars: Best Picture, Supporting Actress (Nyong’o), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Drama). BAFTA: Best Film, Actor (Ejiofor).

Last word: “Making it into a film was almost like conceptualism in a way, where there was the book, and let’s just make the film. So much of it was just about taking it off the page and putting it onto film. At the same time, though, the movie isn’t an illustration of the book, as such. It’s not linear. The book gives you so much information, but you’ve also got to figure out how to construct it and find a rhythm and transfer it all visually. The book is quite long and quite wordy. It is actually a bit of a yawn at points. But another aspect of wanting to make a film about slavery was the visuals. I mean, people talk about being beaten or what happened to them, but when you see it visually and interpret it or imagine it within images, it becomes a different thing. That, to me, was the possible power of the book and the way it was written.” (McQueen, Interview Magazine)



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