12 YEARS A SLAVE. Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Brad Pitt. Directed by Steve McQueen. Rated MA15+. Restricted. (Strong themes and violence). 134 min.
This American-British historical drama tells the true story of Solomon Northup, an African- American man, who survived 12 years of slavery after he was abducted in Washington, DC and sold for slavery. It is an adaptation of the 1853 autobiography by Northup that later appeared as a memoir in 1968. It has been nominated for 7 Golden Globe Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor, and Best Director. It won Best Picture of the year.
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lived comfortably with his wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York. After an evening of drinking with two men who lured him under false pretences to Washington, he wakes up to find that he is chained to the floor. He is drugged, and shipped south to be sold to the highest bidder. Beaten into subjection, he is bought by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a plantation owner in Louisiana. After an attempted lynching by white managers on Ford's plantation, Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), who treats him cruelly. Ford was protective of Northup as his favourite slave, but Epps was differently inclined.
Epps savagely abuses Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a slave girl who attaches herself to Northup, and Epps believes that his rape of Patsey and treatment of Northrup are sanctioned by the Bible. While still in Epps' employ, Northup meets Samuel Bass, a Canadian Landowner (Brad Pitt), who delivers the only formal speech in the movie on equality of rights and human justice. Desperate, Northup pleads with Bass to write a letter to those who knew him back home. Help eventually arrives and Northup is freed after 12 years. No one responsible for his kidnapping has ever been punished, and Northup was never allowed to testify in the nation's Capital.
This movie has two main effects on the viewer. On the positive side, it is a powerful enactment of a black person's incredible fight for survival and freedom. Northup's courage and fortitude are inspiring. At another level, the film depicts frighteningly the barbarity that lay behind slavery that existed in the pre-civil war era in the United States. The movie is as honest as it is brutal in its depiction of a particularly shameful period of American history.
This film has enormous power and force. Examples of its force are Northup's apology "for my difficult times" to his family when he attempts to explain his absence to them; Northup's agony as he is forced by Epps to whip Patsey, tied naked to a post for hiding a bar of soap; the spiritual lament of the plantation workers, who sing over the grave of their beaten black fellow-worker as Northup's feelings of private pain and hurt come to the surface in song among them; and Northup's enormous relief when he is recognized and becomes a free man again.
Final authority for the strength and emotional power of the film rests with the film's English black Director, Steve McQueen, who brought to us the outstanding "Hunger" (2008), and "Shame" (2011). This film shares powerfully with "Hunger" especially, the dignity and suffering of the oppressed.
This is a complex movie, deeply nuanced. Northup survives by denying his education; Epps is insanely jealous of the woman he rapes; the film constantly exposes us to the choice between resistance and collaboration; and anger is not the issue, but hurt and pain are. The movie is stark and brutal, harrowing and shocking. But it is directed and acted superbly, and brooding, intimate cinematography reinforces its raw power.
The movie stands apart from other recent films about slavery such as "Lincoln" (2012), "Django Unchained"(2012), and "The Butler" (2013). Unlike them, it leaves unanswered the question of how the evil of slavery is to be resolved. No retribution occurs in the movie for the abduction of the people into slavery, and terrible injustices that we see are mostly never righted. This movie focuses squarely on man's inhumanity to man, and brilliantly portrays the immense hurt and pain of the enslaved.
For those who can bear it, this is a film that should definitely be seen.
Peter W Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.
Out January 30th 2014.