The difficulties of surviving as a slave are proven to be frantic right from the start of "12 Years a Slave." Thrown from abusive master to abusive master, small meal portions, tight living quarters, and if you're able to read and write you're beaten for it. You have no friends, are packed like sardines in a can whenever you're transported, and the struggle to survive nearly outweighs the urge to live. Solomon's story is absorbing because his time as a free man is spliced into the film whenever he seems to drift off into his own world while he's a slave. His family and time as a free man are his comfort thoughts when he's not able to handle the harsh world around him.
The historical drama is immediately uncomfortable and difficult to watch as it takes little time before Solomon gets his first beating and it's just the tip of the iceberg as far as excruciating sequences go. The cast is extraordinary as you see extremely familiar faces pop up here and there; Benedict Cumberbatch as a Baptist preacher and slave owner, Paul Giamatti as a man in charge of selling slaves and getting the best price for them, and Brad Pitt as a Canadian carpenter with an Amish beard. Paul Dano continues his streak of impeccable performances. Dano's portrayal of sleaziness and smarmy characters reaches new heights in "12 Years a Slave." He is extremely unsettling in the film.
The two standouts of the supporting cast are Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey and Michael Fassbender as Edwin Epps. Patsey picks the most cotton out on the field every day and Master Epps (Fassbender) takes a liking to her because of it. Nyong'o's suffering bleeds through in her performance in every gesture and facial expression. Patsey's journey is heartbreaking and you feel it deep within your soul. Her whip lashing later on in the film is powerful, agonizing, and nearly unbearable to watch without flinching. Fassbender has this demanding yet frightening presence on screen. Epps is a drunk with a short-temper and treats his slaves like property. He is physically and sexually abusive and just the devil reincarnated as far as slave owners go.
But of course the real gem of the film is Chiwetel Ejiofor. The English actor has so much talent and has been in several recognizable projects already, but the down side is nobody knows who he is. He will be a mainstay in the public eye after "12 Years a Slave." Ejiofor is an absolute beast in the film. If you weren't already sitting down, Ejiofor's performance would bring you to your knees because it's so devastating. The extended shots in the film, those ones that seem to last forever while everyone pretends not to see the disgusting event taking place right before them, will haunt you. The over the shoulder shots of kids playing in the background while someone is hanged. It's depressingly mesmerizing. Thinking on your toes has never meant more than during this film.
"12 Years a Slave" is a soul crushing experience. It's a film featuring no humanity and no kindness only damnation and desperation. You won't be the same after viewing it. It's as if a piece of you is left behind once it's over. "12 Years a Slave" strips you naked, verbally abuses you, puts you in restraints, and whips you bloody until you're so battered and beaten you think you're going to die. Then it ties a noose around your neck and hangs you out to dry. As you choke and gasp for air and begin to turn blue, the ropes loosen slowly. A small glimmer of hope emerges and you can breathe again. You will live to see another day, but your life will forever be changed because of it.
"12 Years a Slave" will leave you broken and it's difficult to imagine a repeat viewing, but it's also the most respectable and melancholy experience you'll have this year. "12 Years a Slave" is an outstanding triumph in filmmaking since it's so unbelievably captivating yet will leave you feeling so undeniably uncomfortable as it takes pride in ripping your mortality to shreds over the course of two hours.
Theatrical review. There may be spoilers.
It is unlikely anyone who goes to see this film won't have some idea about what it's about. There have been many fine films about slavery. And while 2012's "Django Unchained" certainly has violent elements associated with American slavery, that film and others often remind you that it's only a movie. This movie will draw you in and does so with the unique history of Solomon Northup, an actual freeman who lived a good life in Saratoga, New York. In 1841, he had a beautiful wife and 2 children (one played by Oscar nominee Quvenshane Wallis). He was a classical violinist and highly respected in the community.
Approached by a pair of "gentlemen" (including a couldn't-believe-my-eyes Taran Killam from "Saturday Night Live") Solomon (an amazing Chiwetel Ejiofor) is enticed by a financial offer to play a gig in Washington, D. C. Once there, he is kidnapped, shackled and sent by steamer to New Orleans. Upon his arrival he is sold as an escaped slave. During this first act, Solomon must quickly learn how to behave, how to act. Just to stay alive. Even talking is frowned upon, so Ejiofor must speak to the audience with his eyes and his expressions to project the torment he is experiencing. Director Steve McQueen often focuses the camera on faces to bring out the pain of the oppressed as well as the viciousness of the oppressors. McQueen doesn't shy away from anything so be prepared.
Slaves, both men and women, are herded together like cattle. They are stripped, hosed down and sold naked. It is hard to watch. Even harder, mothers and children are separated. This is gut-wrenching story telling. Solomon, now called Platt, must hold it together, keeping his wits so that he can eventually reunite with his family. Solomon is first sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a man of some benevolence as slave owners go. He gives Solomon a violin. He is relatively kind. He is portrayed as a man who is uncomfortable with his position but must accept his role as master. When Ford's cotton crop is infested with disease, he must transfer ownership of some of his slaves and does so to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender in another great performance).
Epps is a polar opposite to the meek-mannered Ford. He is vicious and violently sadistic. As noted above, McQueen and his photographer bring out the evil in Fassbender's performance. Epps is not only focused on teaching Solomon a lesson, he always has eyes for a slave known as Patsey (newcomer Lupita Nyong'o). She is but a wisp of a woman but always picks more cotton than any of the men. She is regularly raped by Epps, to the point he doesn't even hide it from his wife (Sarah Paulson). This means that Patsey not only receives harsh treatment from Edwin but from his wife in equal measure. Solomon does his best to comfort Patsey, but has his own agenda.
In one sequence Solomon trusts a white slave (who knew?), under Edwin's control to work off a debt, with the promise to mail a letter back to his family. The man is paid what few coins Solomon had and upon his release promises to mail the yet written letter. Instead, he rats out Solomon to Epps. When confronted, a tired Solomon must quickly formulate a lie. Looking Epps directly in the eye, Solomon without a quiver, delivers a believable story without hesitation. Remarkable stuff.
Remember what I said about "it's only a movie?" There is one shattering scene where Solomon is forced by Epps to whip the stripped Patsey as punishment for her wandering off to a nearby plantation. And for a while, as uncomfortable as it is to watch, we only see the pain in Solomon's face as he lashes Patsey. OK, enough already right? Instead, McQueen swivels his camera around the tree to see the peeled and scarred back of the woman as the whip tears off her skin. This is tear-inducing filmmaking on many levels, but this scene induced many gasps from the audience and a couple walk-outs.
But McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley want audiences to see the evil and feel the pain in the film. And boy do they succeed. I would be remiss if I didn't talk about some of the technical elements of the film. During some of the difficult scenes rather than averting my eyes, I was able to focus briefly on some of the great photography in the film. As unusual and contradictory as it may seem, "12 Years" is technically masterful. The soft glow of the cotton fields, the hazy setting of the sun, the insect spreading its wings, somehow add a respite of civility to this great film of a disgraceful American past. Look for Oscar nomination for actors Ejiofor, Fassbender and Nyong'o, director McQueen and more.
on November 17, 2013
Solomon Northup was a real person with a wife and children doing well as a talented musician living in New York in 1841. He is tricked into being kidnapped, and then is chained, beaten, broken down, re-named (now called "Platt"), transported and sold into slavery in Louisiana. Northrup is one of the very few people to have escaped this terrible plight and, eventually, return to his home and family.
This story is primarily about those 12 years a slave from the book Northup later wrote detailing the transition from free man to slave, the shocking living conditions and treatment of slaves in the south, and his own ordeal in the hands of three slave owners within a system of institutionalized captivity and abuse. His account provides a rare and incredible historic insight. The film is gritty, raw, real and details exactly how slavery "worked" in this country, including the many lines of defense to prevent escape, the extreme measures to deny freedoms, the ways slaves survived and did not, and the ill effects on the people committing or allowing such atrocities.
Torture and violence are set against an often beautiful scenic background, a physical example of the many contrasts presented in this film. The characters are complex and many insights into that time in history are revealed as well as eternal truths about human nature, cruelty and kindness, survival and courage. In this beautifully shot, masterfully crafted film, the main actor Chiwetel Ejiofor makes you desperately feel each and every emotion Solomon experiences from a carefree stroll with his wife and children in New York all the way through his horrific ordeal until his reunion with his family 12 years later. Won't be surprised to see this one sweep the Academy awards and gain recognition as a best film of all times.
on May 8, 2014
Alert: If you have not seen the movie there might be some spoilers
I must confess I did not read the book but was told the movie was great and worthy of the Oscars. I disagree on both counts. Was the movie good, yes, there is no doubt about it but so much history was left out that should have been delved into. The fact that free black men lived, thrived, were respected and even owned business without repercussion should have at least been given more than a few minutes on screen. And unless you pay attention or know history, it will leave you confused. As confusing as when he was taken and sold. It should have at least explained the reason this was happening and with frequency during a part of American history when Congress had abolished slave trading so that no new slaves could be brought in from around the world. The only way to refresh the slave population was to kidnap the free black men from the North because they would not be known in the South and once in the hands of slavers your previous life is pretty much over and were given a new name and forged papers. Our country was divided and while slavery was a brutal trade it was not well received in many places, some of them even in the south.
Solomon Northup is a freeman living in New York and highly respected violinist, has a loving wife and 2 beautiful daughter he adores. Unfortunately he is tricked into a possible venture, drugged and sold. That too was downplayed and should have been given more attention since any family torn apart would have been devastated. Nor was there any mention of people and friends even trying to look for him which I am sure there were many.
After being stripped, hosed down and powdered(for lice) he is given clean, clothes and sent to a house where he and the other slaves are paraded like prize cattle for the shoppers to view. No amount of music(there is an all black orchestra playing soft classical music in the room) lace, wine or plates of hor d'oeuvres can mask the fact this is a slave market. It is a sad tragedy that many families were torn apart in the slave markets and this one is no different as a woman is bought but her two small children are taken away sold to others. If that scene does not grip you heart then nothing from there on will. Solomon endured 12 hellish years as he tries to conform or be severely beaten, traded from one abusive Plantation owner to another. Even his name has been changed and if hints of knowing how to read could find him at the end of a rope. It is sad when one whom he trusted turns against him and is left to hang and children are in the background playing, hardened to the reality of their life and what could happen to them.
He does try to get messages out but finds that anyone that he might trust is in fear of being caught aiding a slave so he continues in his existence but he never forgets who he is or where he came from. During his last years as a slave, he meets Patsy, a beautiful young woman who is the object of affection of the plantation master. Of course this does not sit well with his wife since he does little to cover the lust he has for her. She becomes a target not only for the master and his sexual whims but the wife who transfers all her hate, humiliation and obvious lack of love from her husband to Patsy. Patsy suffers tremendously and her story should have been given almost as much time as Solomon's because her plight was just as devastating as was the plight of most black women during these horrible times. She was severely whipped just to show that she was not that favored to appease the wife. Was Lupita Nyong'o deserved of an Oscar... my opinion is no... while her performance was excellent it was not stellar and she received almost as screen time as the plantation owners wife whose performance was equally good.
Brad Pitt enters late in the movie as a carpenter who is building a gazebo and he makes no attempt to hide the disgust he feels for the owning of slaves. But he is also a lone white man that must keep most of his opinon to himself for it is a very dangerous place he can find himself in. It is while constructing the structure he learns that Solomon is quite the learned man. And eventually he learns just who Solomon is and decides to help.
Of course we know that Solomon is rescued after 12 years of enslavement, and the man that comes to his aid is a white man who dares to stand up to the Plantation owner and promises legal reprisal for his treatment, kidnapping and abuse of Solomon. And here in my opinion is the saddest part of the movie as Solomon is led away, once again a freeman and the other slaves, Patsy included watch him leave knowing that for them there is no escape, no one is coming to free them, no one is going to rescue them.
He is reunited with his family and even that I bittersweet for him. The telling of his story in the movie(I did not read the book) should be made required reading or viewing to school children of all ethnic groups. It is a part of our history that needs to be retold, never forgotten without political correctness ever entering into it. It should be a discussion that should be held in the classrooms and in the homes partly because slavery, buying and selling of humans, particularly young women of all ethnic backgrounds, is still very much alive in other parts of the world with no one doing much of anything to stop it or turn a blind eye.
Was it a good movie, yes.. a sad, tragic and unrelenting part of our country's history that should never be forgotten or ignored... but a movie that could have been so much greater.
on March 9, 2014
I expected more from this movie...although the acting was superb, I thought the film itself was choppy and drawn out. Being a true story, I appreciated learning about Solomon and this terrible part of American history. I just felt the movie itself lacked...continuity. The use of flashback was confusing, and his own family very underplayed, they should have been in it more. What did they do when they realized he was gone? How did they cope all those years? Realizing it was based on the book, I think the movie still could have gone a little more outside of the pages to deepen the storyline. Solomon himself and his family deserved it.
on August 15, 2014
Jack Mord, the popular archivist and collector of 19th century post-mortem and medical photography said that he believes the people in that era were a bit 'off'. I definitely agree.
As you've likely read elsewhere, I have to agree that character development is lacking in this movie, but it also greatly contributes to the story. I also think it ironic that others focus so greatly on that criticism, especially as slavery is simply not a story that most US Americans wish to reflect on at length. Given some other serious diversions from the actual account depicted in this movie, I think greater character development of the black slaves would have in turn required greater character development of the white slave holders and owners.
The director did an excellent job of telling a story that clearly was difficult and yet developed characters that were all human, lovable and worthy of dignity and respect. All of them. When such can be said about all characters in a gruesome slave flick, I think it's phenomenal.
on September 2, 2014
The eponymous book has just been adapted into a film. In fact it is the second time.
The first time was in 1984 under the title “Twelve Years a Slave Solomon Northup's Odyssey.” The more recent adaptation, “12 Years A Slave,” kept the title of the book and is based or connected to this present edition of the book.
This fact brings a question to mind that is more and more asked among people: is that interest for the past of African Americans in the recent period the sign of a deep change in the cultural and mental approach of the Blacks and slavery in the United States, or is it only a fad reflecting the fact that the President of the United States has been black since 2008 and will be till 2016? I do not have an answer to that question and I lean towards a twofold approach: the fact that the President of the United States is a black man has some influence on the United States as a whole and every American in particular, and on the other hand Americans have always cultivated their historical dimension probably because they are all of them, except American Indians, uprooted immigrants who were transplanted into a new continent, by force or by choice. All Americans have thus to face this important period in their past: slavery that started for the English colonists in 1619 and ended for the Americans in 1865, though it continued in some form of apartheid or other till the end of the 20thcentury if not till today.
There could be a third side to the question reflecting a change among the Blacks themselves. Since the beginning of this century the Blacks influenced by the mostly Christian NAACP and those influenced by the Nation of Islam have developed an approach of their heritage as Post Traumatic Stress. They have two names for this. The First group calls it Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome and they are essentially centered on the concept of reparations, hence a collective approach, neglecting the psychological individual problem and hence admitting more or less, like Booker T. Washington, that they have no knowledge of their ancestry. The second group calls it Post Traumatic Slavery Disorder and they are centering their approach on an individual procedure within group processing to help each individual and his group to understand and step out of the problem by re-assessing and revalorizing their past generations and their heritage going as far as possible within slavery itself.
The recent adaptation of the book (first published in 1853) is outstanding in spite of the fact that it cuts a lot of stuff from it. It shortens the legal battle at the end for example but it gives a clear vision of what the Trauma of slavery was and how the Blacks managed to go through it. Never did they really drop their belief that surviving was not worth suffering for. The film gives some fundamental elements that enabled the Black to survive under the worst possible duress and violence. First of all the very planters and slave owners for reasons that have not yet been explained on the Anglo-Saxon side of slavery actually preached their slaves the Bible and Christianity. In the film one planter uses it to elevate their morals and ethical vision, and another uses it to justify his violence against them. But in a way or another they transmitted to them, more nilly than willy, willy-nilly anyway a religious vision that claimed hope and that eternal life was won by suffering in this world. The slaves turned this belief around into a clandestine and underground call for rebellion (openly stated in the next world) in the name of freedom doubled with a tremendous patience in front of the real situation that was a sign of some complicity with God himself. One song, in front of the grave of an old slave, is just that double message. Booker T. Washington explains in his autobiography Up From Slavery:
“Most of the verses of the plantation songs had some reference to freedom. True, they had sung those same verses before [emancipation and the end of the Civil War], but they had been careful to explain that the “freedom” in these songs referred to the next world, and had no connection with this life in the world. Now [after the full emancipation after the Civil War] they gradually threw off the mask, and were not afraid to let it be known that the “freedom” in their songs meant freedom of the body in this world.” (p. 21-22)
The other elements that enabled the slaves to keep their sanity for one and their dignity in their survival for two is the direct negation of what Willie Lynch had said: deprive them of their language, deprive them of their culture, deprive them of their religion. He thought that by doing that he would be able to negate their humanity. The Slaves just had to learn another language (the interest of their own masters), English, French or Spanish, and then this new language enabled them to retain and develop their mental power and intelligence. They replaced their old religions with Christianity though they often invested in this Christianity some old beliefs and myths producing Voodoo, for example and other local Africanized version of Christianity. They retained their rhythmic culture and nature and they transformed any task performed on the plantation under duress and violent overseeing into a singing class, a rhythmic experience, a unique cultural survival (enabling them to keep the rhythm of the work, hence satisfying the interest of the planter and escaping whipping in the evening). Actually it is this cultural survival that has produced the music of the Blacks in America and that music has become the polyrhythmic music of the world today. It is a shame the film does not five a full experience of a “Christmas vacation” all planters provided their slaves with. That was one of these moments (present in the book) when the Black slaves were mostly reviving and re-energizing their own African heritage, even five or ten generations after the Middle Passage.
The film shows that mental survival, at the cost of psychological trauma, and we can thus understand that even when a slave wanted to die in order to escape his or her suffering, the survival instinct, multiplied by their own survival experience, will be stronger and will take over and enable him or her to go on one more step or two. The main character, Solomon Northup, is the acme of that survival attitude in how he manages to never forget who he was and still is, in spite of his having to hide his real nature and identity behind the imposed name and identity of Platt.
After the lethal selection of the Middle Passage, the Africans who had survived crossing theAtlantic had managed to develop this survival stance that will enable them to enrich our world today with one of the greatest African heritage we all share in music.
But that has not erased the Post Traumatic Slave/Slavery Syndrome/Disorder because this PTSS/D is individual and has to be treated individually. Their survival stance is collective but the consequences of slavery are essentially psychological and individual. This will explain why Black education advocated by Booker T. Washington and some others did not solve the PTSS/D problem: it did not even address the question. Neither did Marcus Garvey succeed because he only considered the collective level of the problem. In fact NAACP is not the best approach for the problem and it is among the Muslims of the Nation of Islam that today we find the most realistic and effective cure for that PTSS/D. Strangely enough this film, more than the book, does not really cover the Post Traumatic Stress of Slavery, even for Solomon Northup who yet manages to ask for forgiveness from his wife and children, though he did not do anything wrong: his twelve years as a slave have transformed him into a humble fault-carrying individual instead of standing like a liberated and hence regenerated victim.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU
on March 7, 2016
The book was absolutely amazing! And this movie provided a stunning but haunting visual of this dark chapter in American history. Each and every actor and actress was perfectly placed in their roles. You often forget that you're watching a movie and not just history unfold in front of you. The one part of this movie that I didn't like, other than the whipping scenes which are very graphic. I hated that Solomon cheated on his wife which was awkward and was never even hinted at. Watching the movie I felt Patsy's misery in a way that I was unable to when reading in the book.
on June 30, 2014
I read a synopsis online of the details of what happened to Solomon and I found it to be even more amazing than the film. This film has wonderful performances, but it's basically only about Solomon's treatment as a slave and ends there. It doesn't go into the whole story. It doesn't go into how Soloman was born free (his father was a slave in the north, but his 'master' granted him his freedom in his will. His father did well as a free man and he became a land owner himself) His mother was 3/4ths white and 1/4 black. It doesn't go into how he caught smallpox during the ship voyage or how he got a Sailor on that ship to send word to his father's old 'master's' family (Northup is the name they took from the family that owned his father before he was freed). It was Northup's son Henry who received the letter from the sailor and told his wife Ann what had happened. (So his wife knew what had happened to him during all those years) Because Henry Northup was a lawyer he knew how to use the law to get him back home, but because he didn't know where Solomon was going to end up he couldn't do anything. In order to take action he had to know where he was, but when he did eventually find out where he was, Henry Northup was instrumental in rescuing Solomon. And then of coarse there were the legal trials against his kidnappers... which were a hole other drama that caused enough stir for the New York Times to publish on it. First the trial against his first 'owner' in washington where blacks were not allowed to testify in trial so the owner got off scott free. Then the trial against his kidnappers, whom no one could find because they used false names... but after Solomon published his book a Judge in New York recalled seeing two white men whom he knew well accompanied by a black man traveling to Washington and he recalled that when they returned they were without the black man. They also asked him to please call them by different names while in the company of the black man. This judge wondered if it was possible that these were the two involved in the kidnapping. Sure enough they were! What are the chances of that? The kidnappers were arrested, but after lengthy trial and appeals they never paid for their crime even though both Solomon and the county judge testified against them. NONE of this is in the movie! I liked the movie, but they left some of the most interesting things out. This is probably the only time I'll be able to say that the real life story was more interesting than the film.
on October 5, 2014
I had to give myself a moment to finish sobbing and reflect quietly before giving "12 Years a Slave" a well-deserved 10/10. Few movies move me to so much emotion and provoke so much thought and gratefulness for living in a times, while still imperfect, not at all like the one Solomon and countless others had to endure. It's so unfortunate that, after everything he went through, human justice failed- though I am certain, without a shadow of a doubt, divine justice stepped in one way or another. No one escapes the righteous fury of the God who mourns the suffering of His children.
I was well aware since grade school that slavery is one among the many horrid evils humans are capable of, but watching a documentary like this makes me feel evermore aware- it's like how you know Jesus was Crucified and Passion movies tell the story in a way that helps you better understand that reality. That's what this movie does for those who think they already know slavery happened and find themselves surprised by the power of enlightenment that hits their brain and yanks violently at their heartstrings.
I'm glad he was able to return to his family finally- if only all could've had such a happy ending (or as happy as it could get back then, anyway)