12 Years a Slave.


“You’re a slave!” is yelled at Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) in the early stages of the film while he has his back intermittently beaten on with force by some unknown Southern captive in the nation’s capital. He is chained to the floor.

The film opens in Saratoga, New York, 1841, where Solomon was and has always been a free man. He has a wife and family, though he does not seem absolutely close with his children it is clear he is just like all of us. In fact, he might have married into the family.
As with Shame, Steve McQueen opens on a dizzying montage that, at once, feels like an introduction to the film, but later is realized as a middle part of the story, the narrative later told. Sleeping on the floor in a room of a dozen or two, he is next to a woman he doesn’t know. This stranger presses up against him, grabs his hand and longs for some true loving feeling; perhaps she will never see any person she has loved again. Solomon allows her to use him to fulfill her desire, but when it is done she turns away and sobs while he turns over and looks evermore astonished. He is silent. Before she touched him, his face was full of unhappy thought and unrest. 

The conditions of slavery are equivocal to being a horse brought up on a barn. It is hell. These men and women work are considered someone else’s property and are beaten for not performing up to whatever standard their owner wants them to and sometimes just to break them into being who they want them to be – their perfect labor. Some slavers simply want extra hands around to maintain what they have – some of them are just lost souls looking for a way to make it work in the South, perhaps to compete with other men who do have such “free” labor. In any case, it is wrong and while Solomon knows that in his heart, there is nothing he can do about it. The same applies for the first man who buys him, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a preaching kind of man who views the black people he procures less as property and more as a fellow working being. That is what makes it absolutely heartbreaking when Solomon does good by him — in a way that will generate more productivity on his land — and his reward is a violin, followed by Ford’s happy supposition, “I hope this will bring both of us much happiness in years to come”.

The expressions Chiwetel Ejiofor brings to the forefront of the film are palpable beyond comprehension. It may be easy to assume you know what a character is feeling at any given moment, especially if they are trapped into slavery, but his eyes always carry with them an observation of the time that reaches far beyond any indignation or suffering. When he arrives with Mitsy (Adepero Oduye) after she has her children taken away from her and sold, William Ford’s wife says “My poor child… have some food and rest, soon your children will be forgotten”. He is wearing a sunhat as he passes by this dialogue and his face speaks a thousand words more than “You have no idea what kind of pain this is” or “Wow, you ignorant woman.” In this moment, I believe he also fears for his own future and why the ending, where he apologetically embraces his family, is more appropriate and dramatic than I first realized.
Though it isn’t heavily touched on verbally, though it is sometimes implied through emotion, it is clear that Solomon Northrup was at odds with his mind and thinking about his family. On one hand, perhaps he feared his family would forget about him — they didn’t know where he went off to and it’s impossible for anyone to have heard a word about him. Selling a free man into slavery requires much conspiracy and discretion. He’s lost his name now and is known only as Platt. At some point in the film, perhaps he doesn’t even know himself anymore, it has been that long from the city and people of whom he has developed a home, but one thing is for sure – his family is bereft of him, his presence and his income and he of their love. Before he was sold into slavery, his wife was preparing to work for the season. Black civilians don’t really have many people around them supporting them in 1841, or if they do then there are an equal amount of dismissive and outspoken dissidents, so maybe his wife has taken to another man, simply for the love and support of her family. None of this is explicitly stated in the movie — if I have only one qualm with the film it is that, even at 134 minutes, it is too short to fully chronicle the twelve years of Solomon’s pensiveness and its sense of time, where and when, is nonexistent — but perhaps that is because, though the narrative is particular for the time (a free black man sold into slavery) and compelling, like all film’s about slavery it is about slavery, that most dark time in American history three generations ago, and all of the encompassed slaves, their conditions and lives more than having an inexorbitant focus on one man and his journey. Slavery is bleak and timeless in its cruelty and here, it separated one man from everything he had known and loved, including his family.

For as much lamenting and apologizing Solomon does to his family at the end of the film for what has happened – being gone from home, forcing himself to forget about them, thinking they forgot about him (when he finds out his daughter named her son after him he is at his most sentimental yet, it is a heartbreaking and tear inducing moment for me) for his becoming hopeless and returning to them in this way – I would’ve liked to have seen him feel more devastated in forgetting his family from introspection. As it is, his fleeting hope for ever being reunited with his family slowly burns out as he watches his fellow people lose everything, their families too, and vanish. None of these are hopeful examples and there is no precedent. That is not to say these scenes do not do enough to help understand the deterioration occurring within Solomon, but it could have been reinforced by showing him alone more with his own conspicuousness and better see the concessions he makes; we could have had a better understanding as to what depths. You can see him repressing beautiful memories in the day time and in the night, but only seldom throughout and there, it is never explicitly stated; only felt. He is a thinking man and abates himself, but the only degrees of that we see are when his expectations fail him – which happens on a few occasions throughout – and ultimately cultivates in an emblematic moment when he destroys his violin; the one that William Ford presented him, the one that he carved the names of his family into, the one he was working toward to someday see them again. He does so after he snaps a string while haphazardly tuning them in the woods. He also poos in the woods but this is faintly touched upon. So faintly you may not even know he does it in the film, but he does. That is his life now. These are all of his concessions.

With them, we see men, gagged, bound and hung, women raped and widowed, children being brought up to be slave lovers and families torn apart. These are theirs. People without voices. People that have spoken with metal guards over their mouths. People, one of whom is named Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), have been brought up on plantations and who only know how to work for massa, sing for their souls and speak. These black people are people, but if they don’t relent and concede to being work-animals, then they will be beaten within an inch of their life or altogether disposed. What makes this story so extraordinary is that Solomon was an educated man in New York and before being brought to any ranch, a former slave gave him some inside understanding on how to survive on a plantation — “Do not speak, do not let them know you can read or write unless you want to be a dead nigger”. Clearly, there is self-deprecation and much sadness in his words – he is as helpless as Solomon and on a boat to be someone else’s property, too. Ironically, he is freed, his master saves him — he runs, like a lost and frantic pet right off the boat and into his arms. As a man born into freedom, he has never had to sell himself to another for shelter and work, he has never needed any master. Now he is alone left only with his thoughts. If he speaks he may die, but in order to be set free, he must speak (or magically break free from his chains).

From Paul Giamatti, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) buys both Solomon and Eliza. He wants to buy her two children as well, but the auctioneer will not allow that. In fact, he sells her son to another man in front of her eyes. Her daughter will be brought up to be a “beauty queen”. The expression on Mr. Ford’s face is of utter disbelief. He buys the two that he can and leaves. Cumberbatch’s performance in the role is perfect – not quite as limited as the few scenes he has, but far from limitless as I’d like it to be. He plays a man who owns slaves, has them work on fields, heartfully preaches gospel on Sunday’s and does right by Solomon, in that he treats him as an equal, if not for that he owns him.

Once William Ford passes “Platt” onto another slaver, a man to whom he owes a debt by the name of Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who quotes scripture, but is by no means as eloquent or forgiving as Mr. Ford.

I could write a three-page paper on what Michael Fassbender brings to the role of Edwin Epps alone, if I so desired, but I will be brief because there is so much he does that is so good. Apart from being the main antagonist in the movie, the slave-owner Solomon does his best to subserviently appease and they are together along time. Edwin Epps is not an easy man to please if you’re another person, however, if you are alcohol or considered his property, perhaps you can make him happy the way a game of chess could. Some nights he’ll excitedly roust the slaves he owns and bring them into his house for a dance he despotically overseas. The crazy feeling Epps sometimes experiences when inebriated and restless is madly captured by Michael Fassbender, who I would venture to say actually got liquored up before said scenes. He turns a man from a story into someone wild and the evidence of his psychosis is overwhelming. In the role, Fassbender is that wild, unpredictable force.

There is a disturbing way to introduce a character into a movie and John Ridley has found one. Upon looking down at his slaves, he quotes scripture to justify lashings. Many lashings. When they have collectively worked very hard and done much for Epps and maggots and caterpillars destroying his cotton fields. “It’s that Godless lot… they are heathens and have brought me God’s scorn”. He looks, at once, on the verge of tears and seething with spite for his slaves. He decides to lend them to an associate of his for the summer one years and has some funny lines like, “Don’t give him any Biblical plagues, you hear?” When he is challenged and asked to ponder on a world where black men owned white men, his response is “…the hell?”

He’s very self-entitled and arrogant. Edwin Epps is clearly crazy. There is something wrong with his head. He might even have some mental disorder considering how twisted up he seems, lost in the Bible and surely feeling sinful as he gives in to the lustful desires for Patsy time and time again. Between quoting scripture and raping her, crying about her lifelessness and confusion as to why he wants this for himself, choking her to vent his frustration and to keep her aware (to the point of popping her blood vessel), you don’t need to see him threaten Solomon with a gun or chase him with a knife to see his unraveling. But he keeps it together with alcohol, or rather, it could be what’s causing his craziness. That is what fuels and motivates him daily and it might be the reason for all of his confusion.

Michael Fassbender intricately interprets Edwin Epps and the all of his decisions in developing his character strongly registered with me. The emotion in him is most human and to his character, he is empathetic by the way that he grants him understanding despite his vocation. It makes him very relatable and the performance shows you how people who could afford slaves probably felt in the ways that they lived. In that one scene, he almost illiterately preaches scripture to justify his means. He might be the most ignorant person in the world. I mean in an intellectually as well. For all this and more, he leaves an unforgettable impression as a raging and hatefully racist slave-owner in the South.

As Patsy, Lupita Nyong’o gives quite an incredible performance, too. She is so very subtle with her mumble/speech impediment – I think developed from years of not being allowed to cultivate the language – and gently devastating in that way. We see her go through a lot and at one point, she wants Solomon to end her life. He turns away from her, ignoring her plea so he might go to sleep, but these are the kinds of stakes we’re dealing with. In an early scene, she had an incandescent spirit, singing in the sun and living in bliss where everyone else around her – including Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) – look like they’re living in hell. She is beautiful, but has her beauty taken away from her and spirit put out – time and time again. Though her resilience is profoundly beautiful, it is absolutely devastating when she faints.

A seemingly perfect amount of significance put on every scene and shot. Thanks to this, there are moments where Solomon gets momentary revenge on one ‘master’ in particular and it feels really justified and good. There is bluntness within the dexterity. Then, there are some soft, timely beats impressed upon interactions – some of which are between Mrs. Epps and Solomon after Edwin says he prefers Patsy to her in just about as many words. Therein lies some sexual tension that most tacitly layers the film in ways you would not anticipate, between Mrs. Epps and Solomon at a point or two, although the woman has no idea what to do with it and it leads nowhere, (but that is frequently true in life anyway. This movie is universal.) If she were to sleep with him would it be fair retribution, would her intimate feelings for him be legitimate, or would it ruin her current way of life? Solomon evidently has no interest in her and has no concern for her situation, so she rescinds her independence to the abuse of her husband and is along for the “luxurious” ride.

Those men and women are all lost and looking for comfort, where, adjacently the slaves have all been gathered to one place and have none. The Epps’ and all slave-owners have a need for control and feel astonished when they don’t have a firm grasp of events. Edwin Epps quickly unravels when Patsy disappears one day, so when she returns with a bar of soap (that she claims she had to go next door to get because her mastress, Mrs. Epps, won’t allow her to clean herself with any) It is as pleasurable as anything for Patsy when Solomon has to lash her; he pops her with the whip and that feels like relief until Epps is forced to slice her because Solomon isn’t punishing her enough. Epps overwhelms Solomon, he hates his nonplussed way of being dissenting, especially in this moment now he has to take the whip to the object of his affection, though there is no love between them, only obsession and whips her so relentlessly that his sadness afterward confounds him. With his own inner torment, Solomon adds that there will be karmic retribution for the flesh he has inflicted off of her body, but it seems Edwin forgets about all that because we never see Solomon punished by him again. In this scene, there are so many different waves of emotions that rapidly change as time goes on, and it’s masterfully done in one take. For all I know, for as fraught has he felt Edwin Epps enjoyed whipping Patsy. This is why Michael Fassbender is the actor I would most like to work with. He is a fragmented soul; very dangerous and very confused.

Justice lies in karma and universal truths and the guilty convince themselves with any kind of justification until they are unaffected. That is said by some of the film’s characters late on in the film and is the basis for everything that happens in 12 Years a Slave. For all the pain and suffering we see, the filmmaker is trying to communicate that, on some level, this is okay. It is not okay in the sense that “this is the way the world works,” because no, it is fundamentally corrupt and inhumane; no, rather, they are saying it is okay in the sense that whoever passes on graciously from this life will be rewarded in the next, or if not some form of reincarnation then these slaves are beautiful souls and eventually, the walls surrounding these men who think they’re kings will fall onto them. We know what is right and what is wrong, what is true and what is deceitful. We know Solomon is right in looking for a way home and his masters are wrong for holding him and anyone else captive. That is a universal truth. This is not pressed upon too much – through visuals or the text – but this theme is stated and tips its hat toward poetic justice in a world that may sometimes not feel so just.
I know seeing Patsy torn up the way she was broke Solomon’s spirit. The bloody reality of this flower was simply too much. I think in this moment he forgets about his family and loses himself to the reality in front of him. Too many unreal things are happening, things he never thought he would see are causing him to capitulate hope; he’s been dreaming about his family for so long and this world has broken him. It was perfectly captured on the face of Chiwetel Ejiofor and how he holds himself.

For some actors and the films themselves, the scene where Solomon becomes part of the group singing for Uncle Abe, who died in the field, might be played as a crowning moment as the actor has a loud moment and his character is submitting to being a slave; he’s finally participating in group song. Instead of being in a state of contagion with melancholy, they sing and raise their spirits and with it, their blinkered hope. But here, he does not want your attention. Not Solomon Northup, nor Steve McQueen. They play it straight; in this scene, Solomon is a man in pain bellowing out his catharsis. He’s played a violin for a living, but he has never opened up this throat in this way. He probably doesn’t want anyone looking at him either, but he’s singing like nobody’s looking and it is a powerful for that reason. Competently handled in one shot, but powerfully acted.

And then he quietly waits in the wind as the clouds overhead change his light to dark. He is vulnerable and looks over at the camera. What an amazing movie.

That reminds me of the scene where Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hanging by his neck waiting for someone to save him. Kudos to Chiwetel Ejiofor for that scene. It is the most vulnerable position I have ever seen anybody be in in a film. It was amazing, even breathtaking to watch, to see as my stomach sank. There is a reason why I have loved him for years and will always be grateful to watch him perform. He gives himself to the role with his heart, soul, undivided focus and all and demonstrates here that he can do anything, all the while maintaining a solid front to bide the time he needs in order to make it out alive.

Drenched with emotion and pensive ideas, the script does not entirely focus on the endurance of Solomon Northup and in almost every sequence he is reacting to an event or the words of other McQueen protagonists (Bobby in Hunger, Brandon in Shame), where the film, the protagonist and its emotion is slowly built in meticulous silence. For the lead character of not just this movie, but of any film, he spends a lot of time in the background; sometimes not even drawing any attention to himself in shots with five or six people in the frame. This film is highly emotional and artistically inclined; it is very text-heavy and verbose, yet concurrently stoic. In this sense, the film almost entirely captures Solomon’s journey in a symbolic and cinematic way, but on the same token I feel the writing leaves a little to be desired. There is more to be explored and felt with Solomon on his lonesome, I am sure. In one part of the film, on the boat with the other captives, it reminded me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master. Perhaps if this film had as many silent sequences alone with Solomon the way that and There Will Be Blood do this would be the masterpiece it is crying out to be. It is far more elegant and soundly paced than what you might expect from a 135 minute film steeped in slavery to be, but that is part of the reason I find Steve McQueen’s direction to be flawless. It is beautiful without being sentimental. The last shot is picturesque and sets up Solomon’s retribution. Now, he can rebuild himself and take his life a new, happy direction. With the love of his family once again surrounding him, he has risen above it all.   ****

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