Some movies, no matter how difficult they are to watch, are essential viewing. “12 Years A Slave” falls right in to that category. I have never seen slavery in America depicted so unblinkingly. Nothing can fully prepare you for utter cruelty and inhumanity that is on display here. The story is a first hand account from a free man who was kidnapped and sold in to slavery. He spent 12 years in bondage before he was released. His name is Solomon Northup and he is played by Chiwetel Ejiofor in a performance that better receive some recognition. Ejiofor has been an amazing actor for many years but has some how managed to remain under the radar.
Steve McQueen, the brilliant director of “Shame” and “Hunger” directs this film. John Ridley adapted the screenplay from the book that Northup wrote based on his time as a slave and the multiple owners he had. He was a free man who was drugged and kidnapped after being lured to a dinner and a potential job. He finds himself on board a ship headed for the Deep South. He is sold at Auction in one of the movies most terrifying scenes. The slaves are made to stand on display as potential white buyers look over them as if they were merchandise. I was brought to tears when a mother was torn away from her kids when she was purchased. What disturbed me the most was the sheer lack of sentimentality these people seemed to have.
Northup is initially sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford treats Northup with kindness and a sort of respect considering the situation. Ford appreciates Northup’s skills. He is not treated as well by Overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano) who resents and hates him often resulting in violent confrontations. Eventually he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is a cruel owner that beats his slaves if they do not pick enough cotton by the end of the work day. It is here that Northup sees and experiences the harshest treatment.
It is one thing to read about slavery and it is another to see it depicted on the screen so realistically. The full force of this evil has never hit me in this way before. It is difficult to understand just how people believed they had the right to own another human being and then to treat them in the most brutal and extreme ways possible. It is especially hard to witness when a slave is forced to torture another slave. The despair and pain that comes with a moment like that must be unbearable.
The life of a slave, day in and day out, even without the violence is a harsh one. Northup spends his days picking cotton under a brutal sun with little to no nourishment. Only to be beaten at night if he has not made his quota. It is only when a Canadian carpenter, played by Brad Pitt, helps Northup by sending a letter to his family advising them of his whereabouts.
Director Steve McQueen pulls no punches with his harrowing look at this dark period of time in America. He makes no attempt to make the material anything less then authentic. Why would he? Should any movie about slavery be easy to watch in any way? Even a film like “Django Unchained” did not make any attempt to shy away from the ugliness of the period. Now in no way am I comparing these two films as they are meant to be very different. I think it takes a non American, like McQueen, who is British, to depict these events as honestly as he can.