Solomon Northup: I don’t want to survive. I want to live.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is absolutely appalling. The film itself is brilliant and moving, but the acts it depicts are strictly disgusting and I am ashamed of my own ignorance on the topic. In 1841, a man by the name of Solomon Northup, an African-American man born free, who was living a life of modest success as a musician, with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York, was tricked, drugged, kidnapped and subsequently sold into slavery. Before he could figure a way out of this ordeal, he found himself with his name changed, on a plantation in New Orleans. He was now the property of that plantation owner, having been bought at auction. He would remain a slave for the next twelve years.
Director, Steve McQueen, is not one to pacify his audience. In his debut feature, HUNGER, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, Michael Fassbender is emaciated beyond recognition by the time the film is done; and in SHAME, his second collaboration with Fassbender, this time about sexual addiction, he forces the viewer to see past the act to better understand the reality of the disease itself. Oddly enough, 12 YEARS A SLAVE, is his most accessible work to date, but this does not mean that he does not champion Northup’s struggle with any less fervor than anything he has ever attacked before. Moreover, the grandness of this story itself, the vast period of time it covers, and the numerous hardships Northup must both witness and endure personally, provide McQueen with a finished product that maintains his genuine artistry, but also invites the viewer to engage emotionally on a more widely known subject.
Northup is portrayed on screen by Chiwetel Ejiofor, an actor who has appeared in successful projects like CHILDREN OF MEN and AMERICAN GANGSTER, but has yet to break out despite his clear talent. After 12 YEARS A SLAVE though, he will not need to worry about obscurity any longer, as his face and the gravitas that it carries in this film burns into the viewers mind as they witness his ordeal. As he suffers through one horrifying scenario after another, Ejiofor keeps his head held as high as his beaten body will allow. Northup is an undoubtable inspiration and Ejiofor makes everything he went through real to us, no matter how painful. In addition to this powerhouse performance, the film also features a parade of cameos from a plethora of actors all clamouring to work with the mastery that is McQueen, from Benedict Cumberbatch and Paul Dano to Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt. Fassbender returns as Northup’s owner, a particularly nasty enslaver who always does as he pleases with what he believes to be his property. His ferocity and complete disregard for humanity is just frightening. And newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o marks her feature debut as a slave who has caught the eye of her owner, with a turn that will surely secure her success for years to come.
12 YEARS A SLAVE is based on Northup’s own accounts, which were published as a memoir in 1853, the same year he was rescued and returned to his family. His best seller has been adapted for the screen by John Ridley, who has come a long way since writing drek like UNDERCOVER BROTHER and U-TURN. The film follows Northup from his abduction through his salvation, detailing his sale into slavery, his near-lynching and his time in the cotton fields along the way. Ridley’s screenplay can attribute its success to its subtlety, its efficiency and its unflinching bravery. He touches on the psychology of slavery itself, from the fear of the unknown and being overpowered, to the sexualization of slaves as the greatest taboo, but is smart not to overdo it. It is after all Northup’s story and what he experienced, from moments of stolen freedom within his captivity, to the numerous lashings he received, happened regardless of what had to happen to make it possible.
When I was exiting 12 YEARS A SLAVE, I overheard two women behind me speaking about how this was just a film, a great film they both acknowledged, but just a film nonetheless, and that what Northup and so many others went through was most likely so much worse than what we just witnessed. While they are surely correct in their assessment, there is still no denying how difficult it can be at times to witness the horrors McQueen presents to us here. I actually had to look away at one point as I could no longer bear the pain; and I only had to watch it, let alone live through it. This is just one of the many reasons I admire McQueen so much as a filmmaker and storyteller. You may not want to hear or see it, but he is dedicated to telling difficult stories that deserve to be told and that need to be heard and seen. The fact that he tells these stories so well is both a great tribute to those whose stories are being told and a beautiful gift given to all those who appreciate film and who are fortunate enough to behold his artistry.