Movies: "12 Years A Slave" | Arts & Culture

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Movies: "12 Years A Slave"
Movies: "12 Years A Slave"


“The past is never dead,” wrote William Faulkner.  “It’s not even past.”  That old Southerner’s observation certainly holds true for this movie, in which we are called upon to witness the ugly truth of America’s original sin, and are left wondering how much of it still lives on in some hearts and minds.


You’ve no doubt heard that “12 Years A Slave” is based on the autobiographical book of the same title by Solomon Northrup (played here by the wonderful Chiwetel Ejiofor, who co-starred in the excellent “Children of Men” and stole the show in “Dirty Pretty Things” back in 2002).  In his book (adapted for the screen by John Ridley), Northrup, a free Northern black man, described how in 1841 he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the deep South, where he was subjected to unspeakable cruelty at the hands of slavers, overseers and even the women of the plantation hierarchy (traditionally portrayed on screen as demure Southern belles).


Northrup, dubbed Platt by his kidnappers, is passed from a slave dealer (Paul Giamatti) to a somewhat sympathetic slave owner (the ubiquitous Benedict Cumberbatch), while witnessing the awful separation of a fellow slave from her children.  But when he runs afoul of a sadistic young overseer (Paul Dano), Northrup is sold to a notorious “slave breaker” named Epps (the equally ubiquitous Michael Fassbender), who regularly whips his slaves while he isn’t reading them scripture.  He also makes a habit of raping his favorite, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o, powerful in her screen debut), but fanning the race hatred of his embittered wife (Sarah Paulson).


Throughout his ordeal, Northrup maintains his courage, telling a fellow slave “I don’t want to survive, I want to live.”  


You’ve also no doubt heard how tough it is to watch this movie.  Director Steve McQueen, a black British filmmaker, does not spare us the terrible violence that accompanied slavery:  whippings, lynchings and random murders.  There is one unforgettable scene in which Northrup is hanged from a tree, his feet barely touching the ground, while other slaves go about their business around him and children even play.  In yet another searing scene, he is ordered to whip Patsey while her master and mistress look on.


Yes, these are unpleasant movie moments, but they are facts of American slavery life.  To soft-pedal them would be tantamount to Holocaust denial.  The fact that Solomon Northrup survived all this to write his book does not diminish the truth of what he witnessed.


Ejiofor and his strong leading castmates get some able assistance here from a number of accomplished actors, including Alfre Woodard as the unlikely mistress of a neighboring plantation;  Quvenzhane Wallis (the sprite from “Beasts of the Southern Wild” as one of Northrup’s children;  Michael K. Williams (Omar from “The Wire”) as a kidnap victim aboard the sternwheeler carrying Northrup south;  and, most importantly, Brad Pitt (who co-produced the movie) as a sympathetic Canadian carpenter.


“12 Years A Slave” was shot by Sean Bobbitt, who worked with the director on his earlier movies, “Hunger” and “Shame.”  The music, low-key for once, is by Hans Zimmer.  It’s rated R for intense violence, nudity and some sex scenes.  


It’s a history lesson you’ll never forget.  I give it an A.