An unforgettable portrait of slavery

November 13, 2013

Alan Maass reviews a powerful movie about one of the greatest crimes in history.

IT'S A rare film that's so powerful you have a hard time getting out of your seat when it ends. Rarer still is a movie that has you staring into space days later, thinking about why you couldn't move.

12 Years a Slave is that good.

The movie tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a Black man born free in New York state. In 1841, he was lured away from his family and life to Washington, D.C., where he was kidnapped, shipped by boat to New Orleans and sold into slavery.

Northup wasn't the only victim of kidnappers operating in the North at this time, but he was almost unique in winning his freedom from slavery 12 years later. He managed to get word to his family, and a white attorney, whose father had once owned Northup's father and freed him, traveled to Louisiana on the authority of the governor of New York to rescue him.

Northup's account of this nightmare was published as a book in 1853 and became a best seller of its time. Like other "slave narratives," it was used by the abolitionist movement to sharpen Northern opposition to the Southern slaveocracy.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave

In the film, director Steve McQueen doesn't stray far from Solomon and his story. The closest the movie comes to referencing the wider political situation is a single camera shot: As Solomon, shackled in a basement dungeon in Washington after his kidnapping, begs for help through a barred window, the camera leaves him and moves upward over the building's outside wall until it rises above the roof--and we see the Capitol building in the distance, a symbol of American democracy looming over a world of violence and suffering.

The general isolation from the wider world is part of the movie's storytelling, though. For Solomon, anything beyond the hull of the ship carrying him south, beyond the walls of the New Orleans mansion where he is sold, beyond the walls of trees that surround the plantations--that outside world may as well not exist for all the good he can expect from it. The only certainties of his life are right in front of him: the humiliation of servitude, the deadening routine of endless menial labor, and sudden eruptions of violence.

Review: Movies

12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, screenplay by John Ridley from a story by Solomon Northup, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and Michael Fassbender.

Solomon is traded between masters. The first, a Baptist preacher, flatters himself that he cares about his slaves, or at least their immortal souls, but proves in the end to be more concerned about his social standing in the slaveocracy. The second is a sadistic monster who treats his cherished human "property" worse than animals.

Throughout the film, the violence of slavery isn't caricatured or sensationalized, which makes it all the more horrific. But the movie also captures a more commonplace horror: the crushing of the spirit, what Frederick Douglass called "the ever-gnawing and soul-devouring thought--'I am a slave, and a slave for life, a slave with no rational ground to hope for freedom'--[that] rendered me a living embodiment of mental and physical wretchedness."

This is a testament to McQueen's skill as a filmmaker, but also to actor Chiwetel Ejiofor and the rest of the amazing cast. As Solomon, Ejiofor brings to life the different sides of his character: incomprehension and fury at his capture; heartbreak over the barbarism committed all around him; satisfaction in finding ways to utilize his mind and talents, even if they benefit those who own him; despair that he may never be free; anguish at the horrific acts he must participate in to stay alive.

STEVE McQUEEN has made two previous feature films, but he also has a background as a visual artist, exhibiting in art galleries rather than theaters. This experience shows through in the film's stunning visual images.

For example, Solomon at one point gains unexpected hope with the appearance of a white laborer working and living alongside the slaves, who Solomon pays--with the tiny sum he has earned as a musician--to mail a letter to his family in the North. But Solomon is betrayed and must burn the letter he has written on stolen paper, using a handmade quill and improvised ink.

When he sets fire to it in the dead of night, Solomon's despair is written on his face--but that's followed by the image of the letter consumed by flames, gradually turning to glowing red embers, then to spidery veins of darker red that flicker out, bit by bit, until the screen is left in total darkness. All McQueen has done is leave the camera running on a piece of burning paper after other directors would have turned it off--but the symbol of hopelessness is as powerful as the most graphic scenes of violence.

Likewise, McQueen shows the twisted dynamics of the slaveocracy's terrorist regime in a single extended sequence of an attempted lynching.

Solomon has responded to a white carpenter's provocations by beating him with his own whip. The carpenter returns with other whites to lynch Solomon from a tree in front of the circle of slave cabins. But the plantation's overseer intervenes, on the grounds that killing Solomon would be "theft" of the owner's "property." The overseer cuts Solomon down--but leaves him still dangling from the tree limb, barely able to stay on his toes to keep from suffocating.

At first, all we see is Solomon, struggling to stay alive. Then, in a sequence of shots from a greater and greater distance, the life of the plantation quietly resumes around him. Slaves head toward the fields; children play. One slave edges up to Solomon and gives him a sip of water to keep him alive. In the next shot, we see that the overseer has witnessed this apparent act of mercy--he wants Solomon to survive, but also to teach him a lesson. Then, watching from the veranda, the plantation owner's wife contemplates Solomon's struggle to keep from strangling to death, before she, too, turns away.

So many characteristics of the depraved system of Southern slavery are captured wordlessly in this sequence--the condition of the slave, continually assaulted, but kept alive enough to work; terrorist violence to make an example of a rebel so others don't join the rebellion; the savage crime of slavery hidden in plain sight at the center of supposedly genteel Southern life.

THE POWER of this movie comes from understanding that Solomon's experience of barbarism and dehumanization was the same for millions of Blacks who endured slavery. But that power is greater still if you bear in mind some of the historical accidents that made Solomon's story unique.

The opening scenes of the movie show Solomon as a respected citizen of Saratoga, N.Y.--the shopkeeper who will eventually travel to Louisiana to rescue him treats him as a friend and equal. But this shopkeeper would have been in a minority among Northern whites in 1841. The radical phase of the abolitionist movement was only just getting underway, and the majority of white working people viewed free Blacks as competition--their hostility was still confined, as W.E.B. Du Bois put it, to the slave power of the South, rather than the institution of slavery.

Even more unique are the circumstances of Solomon's rescue. He is finally able to send word north to his family after he meets a Canadian laborer hired to build a gazebo for the plantation. The Canadian not only holds abolitionist opinions, but has the courage to argue with the plantation's tyrant of an owner.

This character is true to Northup's account in his 1853 book, but he would have been a very rare exception in the South of this era.

In the early 19th century, as the production of cotton became central to the world economy--it was the raw material that spurred on the Industrial Revolution in Europe--the labor system of slavery necessary for mass production of cotton became completely entrenched. The richest slave owners developed the terrorist system depicted in the film to crush the threat of slave rebellions. Simultaneously, any whites who opposed slavery were faced with the choice of living with the threat of deadly violence or fleeing for the North or West.

Thus, for Solomon to find an anti-slavery sympathizer in the South of the 1850s to get word to his family was a one-in-a-million shot. This leads to the final agony of Solomon's 12 years as a slave: Even as he is finally rescued, he understands that he can't help those who suffered alongside him.

McQueen dramatizes this realization with another unforgettable image: As Solomon sits in the back of a wagon that carries him off the plantation and toward freedom, we see his fellow slaves behind him, looking on from the increasing distance. Then, while Solomon's face remains clear, the background goes out of focus, and the life he is leaving becomes an indistinct blur. McQueen's trick of cinematography is a visual symbol of the last terrible truth for Solomon: The price of his liberation is to accept that he, by himself at least, cannot help even one other slave to freedom.

12 Years a Slave is a gut-wrenching movie, but it becomes even more so when you remember this: If not for an unlikely chain of coincidence and pure luck, Solomon Northup would have died unknown, his story buried with his slave name in a plantation graveyard in Louisiana.

In that sense, the movie pays its greatest tribute to the millions of men, women and children who spent not 12 years, but their whole lives, a slave--enduring one of the most terrible crimes of history.

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