November 18, 2013 -- This searing portrait of slavery in America in the 1840s is based on a true story, written by the man who experienced it, Solomon Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor of “2012” in the film). Northup, a free man from Saratoga Springs, New York, is betrayed, drugged, kidnapped in Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery in 1841.
Northup is determined to survive his terrible ordeal in the hopes of someday seeing his wife and children again. He learns that he cannot trust any white person enough to tell them who he really is. To speak his real name is to court severe punishment, even death. His captors give him the name Platt and force him to use it.
The story follows Northup as he is sold and loaned from one slave owner to another in the Red River region of Louisiana. One of the main characters in the film is that of the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o of “The Constant Gardener”). Patsey is the favorite slave, and sexual partner, of slave owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender of “Shame”). Epps' wife (played by Sarah Paulson of “Serenity”) is extremely jealous of Patsey.
Epps makes it clear that if his wife insists that he choose between her and Patsey, that Patsey will be his choice. Even though he loves Patsey, she is still his slave, and he whips her savagely to show her that she has to obey him and not try to rise above her position in life. In one scene Patsey is in such despair, she begs Northup to kill her.
The complexity of the social and sexual relations between slave owners and slaves is explored to an extent in this film. One former slave, Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard of “Radio”) has been elevated above the other slaves on a plantation and has servants of her own. She is openly recognized as the mistress of the white plantation owner. It was illegal for a white person to marry a black person in those days, but other accommodations were sometimes made for these mixed race relationships.
Another thing the movie makes clear is the relationship between Christianity and slavery. This is something that Christians don't want to be reminded of. Slavery is found in the bible, and it was practiced by men favored of God. Bible passages which support slavery are read aloud by slave owners to their slaves in the film to justify slavery, and whippings. In fact, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed in 1843, during the time period of this film, specifically to allow slave owners to become ordained ministers.
Slavery has been addressed in films many times before, such as in last year's acclaimed film, “Django Unchained” and in D.W. Griffith's masterpiece, “Birth of a Nation.” But I have never seen slavery depicted in the graphic, emotional way it is depicted in “12 Years a Slave.” It is both brutal and compelling. The scene in which Patsey is whipped by both Northup and Epps is convincing, both technically and emotionally, and difficult to watch because of the inhumanity and brutality of the act.
I can see why this film is a favorite to win awards at next years Academy Awards ceremony. It is emotionally powerful, well-written and it features some great performances. This is a British and American production. It seems only fitting that this should have been directed by an American director since it is an American story, but Steve McQueen, a Brit, did a terrific job directing this. This film rates an A.
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