“12 Years a Slave” is based on the incredible true story of a man who tried to survive and fought for his freedom. Solomon Northup, a free man living in the state of New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He has witnessed cruelty and unexpected kindness. Solomon fights not only to stay alive, but also to preserve his dignity. No one listens to Solomon when he claims to be a free man. While he’s undergoing the atrocities as a slave to undergo, he dreams of returning home.
My sentimentality stretches the length of a coin.
“12 Years a Slave” is an impressive adaptation of the diary of Solomon Northup, a free man who lived in Washington with his family in 1840. He‘s approached by two businessmen who offer him a lucrative job in a circus as a musician. Solomon is drugged and abducted to the Southern states of America to be sold there as a slave. What follows is a gripping and horrific tale of a man who tries to survive in inhuman conditions and suffers under the authority of the white plantation owners who rule with a severe hand and who judge over the fate of these Afro-Americans.
At times it’s painful and unbearable to watch certain images. The helplessness on the faces and the hopeless situation of these people was distressing to see. The moment they arrive in New Orleans there is that momentary image of chained blacks with amputated hands and an apathetic resigned expression on their face. These Afro-Americans were seen purely as goods : assessed as an ordinary horse and if they no longer meet the requirements, they were simply removed. The whole movie is a picture of humiliation, abuse and torture. The feeling of disgust was never far away.
The settings and decoration of the entire film was stunning. The whole movie breathed the spirit of that time, both in Washington and in the southern states. Washington looked like a prosperous sophisticated city. The southern part looked sultry and dusty. You could feel the oppressive heat blasting of the screen and you could almost smell the sweat (by fear and efforts). Beautiful outdoor shots and impressions alternated with shabby huts and decay .
An impressive cast has also been incorporated. I must admit that I had never heard of Chiwetel Ejiofor . Till now he had the status of “that-guy-who-also-plays-in-that-movie”. That will change now I guess and his (difficult) name will now sound more familiar. However, he also starred in ” Salt ” and “American Gangster” to my surprise. In this movie he plays the role of his life and it’s well worth an Oscar nomination. It’s sublime to see how he brings the metamorphosis of an articulate and accepted person into a humiliated and silence imposed slave. A variety of facial expressions pass by: enjoying first, then desperate, humiliated and submissive, anger and resentment, sense of justice and compassionate, and then relieved and remorseful. The whole pallet he apparently plays effortlessly. Michael Fassbender is far better in this movie as the cruel, despotic and demonic Edwynn Epps, than when he played the counselor in “The counselor”. At this time he is number one on my list of most sadistic and disgusting movie characters. A figure who adores his dominance, uses a young girl for his personal enjoyment to the annoyance of his wife and apparently has a drinking problem causing unpredictable and dangerous mood swings .The unknown Lupita Nyong’o can look back on a matchless performance and is clearly launched in Holywood land . What a wonderful achievement!
Cumberbatch his contribution was unfortunately limited. At times the figure Ford came across as an affable man who could muster some compassion. But ultimately they were for him purely an investment, not more than that. The moment Solomon arrives at Ford’s estate together with a bereaved mother, who was painfully separated from her children, Ford’s wife showed a perfect display of the attitude in those parts at that time. First she is compassionate and concerned. Subsequently she advices a necessary hearty meal for the woman and says that she’ll forget about her children after a few days. This sad woman is also removed afterwards because she’d likely affect morale. There are also short performances (but not the least) by Paul Giamatti as the shrewd slave trader , Paul Dano as the cruel Tibeats (recently he played a brilliant part in “Prisoners”) , Sarah Paulson as the wife of Epps (Mary Lee in “Mud”) and Brad Pitt. The latter had a substantive and crucial role in this movie. He’s finally the one who ultimately gave Solomon his freedom back. Whether Pitt had to play it or not is another question. It could have been anyone else in my opinion, but his name will probably ensure extra attention, I suppose.
So it’s a compelling and poignant movie about one of the blackest pages in American history. The strongest point was the lengthy scene where Solomon dangles on a string and in the background everyone slowly goes back to what he or she was doing, as if nothing is happening. The fact that other slaves aren’t conversing that much, makes complete sense. The lesson was to say as little as possible, let alone that it would come out that you can read and write. As someone also warned “Unless you want to be a dead nigger.“.
And yet this film is not one that stands above everything else. Notwithstanding that this period may never be forgotten, at the end I had a ” Here we go again ” feeling. It’s not that long ago we saw ” Django Unchained ” , “The Butler ” and “Lincoln”. Plus the fact that there were television series shown in the past like “Roots” and “North and South”. I hope that we can let this topic rest for a while now. I also found it strange that although Solomon demonstrates intelligence and seems to be a wise and eloquent man, apparently it wasn’t a reason to start worrying. If I were a landowner I would get rid of him as soon as possible. Also the fact that despite the trials Solomon stayed calm at all times (until the reunion with his family), seemed a little excessive to me . And in addition, the film title itself tells the complete story. You can’t be surprised anymore or enjoy some ingenious found twist.
A film that continues to resonate, a magnificent achievement in acting and for me an Oscar for Chiwetel Ejiofor . However, the movie itself is yet another one in a long row of the same.
My rating 8 /10
Links : IMDB