Starring Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps), Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford), Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey), Sarah Paulson (Mary Epps), Brad Pitt (Samuel Bass). Directed by Steve McQueen.
Reviewed by Randeep Singh
In 1841, Solomon Northup, a black American free man from Saratoga Springs, New York, was kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and transported to New Orleans where he was sold as a slave. McQueen’s adaptation of Northrup’s autobiography is a brutal yet necessary reminder of the cruelty of institution of slavery.
A black man born to West-Indian parents in the United Kingdom, McQueen tells the story of one man’s life as slave in the south without any of the sentimentality surrounding the “peculiar institution” as in Gone With the Wind or the fantasy of Django Unchained. “12 Years” is the true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), an educated, violin player with a wife and two children. One day he is approached by two men who offer him the lucrative prospect of playing in a touring gig. He dines with them one night and is drugged. The next day, he finds himself shackled to the floor of a cell.
Solomon is then transported down the Mississipi where he is sold at a slave house in New Orleans to a plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford later sells Solomon to another planation owner, the sadistic Edward Epps (Michael Fassbender) where he spends out his days until he is rescued in 1853 by a local sheriff.
The film deserves praise as one of the few films in recent history to tackle the question of slavery with the candour it deserves. McQueen shows how slavery works through the injustice meted out by the slave owner and his overseers and the acceptance of injustice by the slave. In one searing Platt (Solomon’s slave name) is left hanging by a noose from a bough, after an attempt to hang him by the plantation overseer John Tibbets (Dano) fails. The image is of Platt hanging from the noose, his feet barely touching the ground beneath him, while the rest of the plantation slaves carry on with their work.
The crowning achievement of the film is the masterful direction of McQueen and the superb performances he elicits from his actors. Ejiofor captures the suffering and dignity of Solomon, as a man who does not sink into despair, with his hope for freedom still alive even as he is whipped from a tree and hung by a noose. Fassbender is effective as Epps, the cruel slaveowner, who reads scripture as justifying slavery as the will of God and who blames crop failure on the scorn of his slaves. Nyong’o who plays Patsey shows poignantly the predicament many black women slaves were the object of their master’s lust and of abuse by their mistresses. The film’s climax is the horrifying scene where Epps forces Platt to whip Patsey for visiting the plantation of another slave owner. When Epps is convinced Platt is going soft on the girl, he himself lashes her until the skin on her back is reduced to strips.
“12 Years” accomplishes all this through a fast-moving narrative, without preaching or condescending to the viewer but showing uncompromisingly what slavery was and how it was so brutal. Perhaps the most shocking and affecting scene in the film is where Platt wakes up in the cell and realizes he is no longer Solomon, the cultured violinist who sat at a table with the white man, but who, shackled like a creature, writhes in vain to recapture the freedom that has been stolen from him. That there was the indignity of slavery: to reduce humans to property, freedom to ownership and to forsake brotherhood for cruelty, all caught by McQueen’s heart-rending and unforgettable adaptation.