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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a humorous four-line clerihew about a famous person, but in light of today being Good Friday, I went more of a serious route and reviewed a film with suffering as a major theme.)

 

Solomon Northup
Would not give his worth up.
At dignity’s theft,
He survived with what was left.
_______________

MPAA rating: R

When 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture back in 2013, I was struck by one critic’s statement that it was the first major film focusing on American slavery. I found that hard to believe, but the more I tried to think of a previous example, the more I realized he was right. Roots opened the eyes of television audiences back in 1977, but cinematic slavery seems always to have been in the background (Gone with the Wind, for example), centering more on white characters. There have been so many films about the struggles of African Americans during Reconstruction and the Civil Rights Era that their pre-Civil War history has surprisingly been overlooked, at least in the movies.

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Directed by Steve McQueen (the director, not the actor), 12 Years a Slave is all the more potent due to its historical source, the real-life memoir of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Overnight, Solomon goes from a respected member of the community to a piece of property labeled “Platt,” and his agonizing journey represents a comprehensive survey of the slave experience, ranging from the humiliation of the auction house to plantation masters both kind and cruel. His first master William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) treats his slaves fairly yet does not recognize the moral dissonance between his Christian beliefs and slave-dependent lifestyle, epitomized by the delivery of his Sunday sermon competing with the wails of a grieving mother. Still, Ford is a saint next to Solomon’s next owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a hard-hearted brute who takes pleasure in raping his favorite and most productive slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, who deservingly won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar).

For years, films have grieved hearts and minds with Civil Rights-Era racism, behavior that is still seen as a holdover from the days of slavery, but it’s even more shocking to see the real thing, the undiluted cruelty and unrestricted control over human lives that were an unquestioned institution in the South before the Civil War. Multiple scenes are carefully crafted gut-punches that intentionally drag on to heighten their inhumanity: as punishment for fighting back on one occasion, Solomon is trussed up by the neck with his feet barely touching the ground, while his fellow slaves filter outside, too fearful to help him. In one astounding and brutal shot filmed without cuts, Epps forces him to repeatedly whip Patsey over a mere bar of soap. Through all this, Ejiofor delivers the performance of a lifetime, and even if the timing of what happens when during the twelve years is not documented, the years are felt in Solomon’s troubled gazes of ever-increasing despair and desperation.

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For me, 12 Years a Slave is somewhat similar to The Passion of the Christ, mainly in its depiction of heartless savagery (including a prominent whipping) that makes it a film to appreciate as significant but by no means something to enjoy watching. All the performances are outstanding, though I would have thought Ejiofor deserved an Oscar even more than Nyong’o (who would have believed he’d lose to Matthew McConaughey?), and Fassbender’s wholly detestable role as Epps nearly threatened to destroy my personal regard for the actor. (It was cool, as well, to see Ejiofor alongside Cumberbatch three years before their pairing in Doctor Strange.) While some scenes are reminiscent of Roots, 12 Years a Slave is more mature and intense in its depiction of violence and rape, and the sense of misery and loss is constant, even after the emotional release toward the end. The portrayal of Christianity is also less than positive, illustrating how it was often used to justify slavery, but such representations are somewhat mitigated by the more sympathetic faith of a visiting abolitionist (Brad Pitt). While I’m not entirely convinced that all the powerfully poignant scenes add up to a masterpiece, 12 Years a Slave is an important piece of historical cinema and a long overdue look at a subject many might want to forget.

Best line:  (Epps, debating with the abolitionist) “I bought ’em. I paid for ’em.”
(Bass) “Well, of course you did, and the law says you have the right to hold a n*****. But begging the law’s pardon, it lies. Suppose they pass a law taking away your liberty, making you a slave. Suppose.”
(Epps) “That ain’t a supposable case.”
(Bass) “Laws change, Epps. Universal truths are constant. It is a fact, a plain and simple fact, that what is true and right is true and right for all. White and black alike.”

 

Rank: List Runner-Up

 

2017 S.G. Liput
469 Followers and Counting

 

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