12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)

Chiwetel Ejiofor (center) in a still from 12 Years A Slave
  • Release Date: 08/11/2013
  • Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt
  • Director: Steve McQueen

“I will apologize for my appearance

But I have had a difficult time this past several years” 

—Solomon Northup

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man in New York. He owned his own house, had a lovely wife with whom he was hopelessly in love with and immensely enjoyed the company and warmth of his children. He was an expert violinist who rubbed shoulders with the most respected of the society when he was not busy doing what he did. He was warm handed by the shop owners of the town who took him to be someone who would buy the best of clothes and supplies and never haggle over price. He was poised, articulate, and enjoyed uplifting conversations with knowledgeable and well-dressed men. It was a sheer tragedy when Solomon was cajoled by two individuals into performing somewhere away from the warmth and safety of New York, was drugged, and then sold off as a slave named Platt to a brutal slave trade ring.

Solomon for the next many years changed hands between multiple owners and endured despicable tortures as he could neither prove that he was a free man nor escape without getting killed. He had to forget Solomon Northup and become Platt, the muscled nigger who could fiddle occasionally. For the next many years, he not only endured horrifying tortures from his masters but was also witness to some of the most inhuman atrocities that white folks committed on their black slaves.

Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a fellow slave was one of the highest performing cotton pickers in the fields of Mr. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). She was a free-spirited and blessed spirit who believed that her life could be worth something in time. Mr. Epps not only valued her contributions in the cotton fields but also drooled lascivious over her womanhood. This didn’t go down well with Mrs. Epps who regularly brutalized her as she was unable to restrain her husband. As things got worse, Patsey was increasingly getting sandwiched between Epps’ craze and ownership of her every breath, and Mrs. Epps trying every trick in the book to demonize her and get her physically brutalized. Solomon aka Platt remained a silent spectator to all this. He watched with horror as a living breathing human being disintegrated into a shadow of what she used to be. If that was not enough, he was forced to take part in ripping apart Patsey’s back with a whip when Mr. Epps couldn’t bring himself to do the dirty work.

Tibeats (Paul Dano) was a carpenter who knew how to brutalize a negro better than he knew his craft. He even had a catchy song to make his niggers move their hands and feet to. He quickly gets into loggerhead with Solomon aka Platt who proves him wrong at his trade more than once and is quickly appreciated by his first and more humane owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Things quickly escalate between the two to such an extent that Tibeats tries to hang Solomon, but he is saved by one of Ford’s men employed to safeguard his investments. Ford is a good man, but he is unable to guarantee Solomon’s safety in his employment and is forced to sell him to Mr. Epps.

Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender in a still from 12 Years A Slave

After his capture, when Solomon is being ferried off New York, he makes the acquaintance of Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a fellow Negro lady who has been shunned and sold into slavery along with her children by her white stepdaughter. Eliza was a slave to start with, but her master fell in love with her. He fathered a child with her and gave her freedom and respect. However, as the man’s health faded, his white daughter took charge of his household and didn’t lose time to sell off the poor woman and her children into slavery. Eliza was doing all that she could to remain united with her children and ensure their safety. However, that was not to be. We, along with Solomon, soon see her ripped away from her children. Before they are separated, we have the misfortune of learning what the slave trader plans to do with her daughter.

12 Years A Slave is Solomon’s story and is documented through his varied experiences like the ones mentioned before. Chiwetel Ejiofor wonderfully brings to life the character of Solomon and all the horrors that he experienced for the first time in his life. The most heart-wrenching part of his essay is his inability and helplessness to do anything about his condition. He knows that he is a free man who has a house, family, and friends but clamped by shackles and in a town that cannot look past the color of his skin, all the rules of the land and humanity count for nothing. The enormity of the inhumanity that he witnesses being meted out to humans, forgetting for a moment their skin-tones, leaves him perplexed and dazed. A man who enjoyed fine dining was now subjected to eat scraps that not even a dog would consume. He could be kicked and beaten by anyone and he could do precious little in retaliation. He couldn’t let others know that he could read and write and had an eloquent tongue. Above all, he was even stripped of his identity. The character had a lot to work with and Chiwetel Ejiofor made the most of it with his authoritative essay. Evidently, he gave it his everything and it shows in his performance.

Michael Fassbender is a picture of evil. Not only is he as gruesome and brutal as any slave owner could be, but he also has his trademark craziness and irrationality to go with it. When Patsey disappears for a few minutes to visit a nearby house from where she plans to procure soap that she has been denied by Mrs. Epps, Mr. Epps creates a ruckus that culminates in Patsey having her back ripped off by Solomon under orders from Epps. The same Epps, in a different scene, tells his wife that he will rather have her go away then part with Patsey demeaning Mrs. Epps gravely and catalyzing her animosity for Patsey. There is an inherent unpredictability to Epps, and it is what makes his character interesting and shocking. Michael Fassbender perfectly gauges the depth that he should take that unpredictability to and uses it to his advantage.

Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, and Brad Pitt leave a sizeable impact on the story and the character of Solomon through their brief but proficient essays.

The cinematography of 12 Years a Slave has a very distinct feel to it. It adds a lot to the already unnerving nature of the film and in many sequences, it elevates the feeling of horror to a whole new level. When Solomon is put on board a ship, we never see the entirety ship in a long take. Instead, we get to see the wheels of it churning and leaving a trail on the water giving us an idea of how far away from his world Solomon was being ferried. The despicable violence is also documented from interesting angles that make the sequences even more harrowing. The cinematographer makes it a point to linger on Solomon and certain other characters from time to time which helps us get a better feel of the range of emotions passing through those characters. The visuals at certain junctures are envisioned from Solomon’s point of view while at other times, the camera gives us a view or two that only we are privy to and adds to the sense of the tragedy of a particular sequence.

Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor in a still from 12 Years A Slave

The sound design of the film is equally potent. The emphasis on certain sounds adds an extra dimension of horror to certain sequences. The sound of a whip tearing through flesh in tandem with the wailing of an innocent will forever haunt my worst nightmares. Similarly, the sound of the wheels of a ship plowing through a water body and carrying a father and a husband away from his family was of no less terrifying. Maybe it was because of how effective the story and its character were that these little things grabbed my attention even more. But due credit must be given where it is deserved.

12 Years A Slave is true horror. It is difficult to envision and execute a film of this nature. It takes a significant emotional toll on the actors particularly. For that and a whole lot more, I can only thank Steve McQueen and the entire team of the film for having the courage and the stomach to make something of this nature. Good News! The film does end on a positive note. If it hadn’t, it would be unwatchable. Not because it was bad but because it is so good at putting out what it set out to achieve.

Rating: 4.5/5 (4.5 out of 5 Stars)

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