Honest portrayal of slavery in the south

Caroline Madden, ‘Doah Staff Writer
April 2, 2014

'Doah photo courtesy of artinsightsmagazine.com

‘Doah photo courtesy of artinsightsmagazine.com

While we have had the film for television “Roots,” there has been no film to so accurately and unflinchingly portray the utter horrors of slavery until now. Directed by Steve McQueen (director of “Hunger” and “Shame”), “12 Years a Slave” tells the true story based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup. Solomon Northup was a free man living in the North, who upon meeting two men claiming to be circus travelers looking for a musician, is drugged and trafficked into slavery. All Solomon wants to do is go home and see his family, but he refuses to fall into despair despite being completely trapped in the American South as a slave. The film puts you right in the middle of his day-to-day terrors, with no concrete showing of the passage of time. Everything just blends together, as it must have for Solomon Northup.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Solomon; his expressive eyes end up telling more of the story than any of Solomon’s dialogue does. This is the brilliant tool for Chiwetel’s portrayal of Solomon, we can see all the pain and the anguish in his expressions, there is no need for explanation. His final scene will break your heart. Chiwetel deserved the Oscar this year, if not for such stiff competition.

Michael Fassbender, who has frequently worked with McQueen, returns under his direction in this film as Epps. Epps is a sadistic and especially cruel slave owner. Epps uses the Scripture to back up his sadism, trying to justify for himself that what he is doing is right. The acts he commits on screen are even more horrifying knowing this is based on an actual person. He was a cruel man in real life and as depicted in film. Epps is also a tortured soul, not that we sympathize with him, but Fassbender so brilliantly brings out this captivating inner struggle that his character is dealing with. Epps has an attraction to the young slave girl Patsey, much to his wife’s distaste. Epps was not an easy person to capture, but Michael Fassbender adds captivating layers to this awful person, showing how the notion of slavery was so imbedded in their culture.

Lupita Nyong’o plays her Oscar-winning role of Patsey. Patsey is a gentle young girl who goes through unspeakable cruelty due to both her mistresses’ jealousies and Epp’s fixation. Her performance is nothing short of incredible. It is truly heart wrenching to see this bright young girl to be tortured in such horrible ways, not just physically but also mentally. She compassionately begs Solomon Northup to drown her, for having all joy of life completely ripped from her.  Lupita Nyong’o brings a depth and earnestness to Patsey, honoring the real young woman of the story.

As one can imagine, “12 Years a Slave” is not an easy film to watch. It can be agonizing, and the film recognizes this as well. While it may be hard to watch, it makes you watch and makes you see what this daily life was truly like. In one instance, Solomon is hung by a tree with his feet barely touching the ground. He struggles to stay up, and the camera holds and lingers on this shot for a long time. As he struggles, the camera highlights the plantation life that goes on behind them– children playing, men and women having tea, and so on. For them, this was just an everyday thing. The idyllic landscapes of these beautiful Southern plantations juxtapose the horrors that were happening there.

At some points in the film, it is almost unbelievable that something like this actually occurred in our history. It is an incredible sobering portrait of what is unfortunately an accurate depiction of our American history. This film is one that will stand the test of time. It’s Oscar win for Best Picture cements its rightful place in the cinematic firmament. As Steve McQueen said in his Oscar speech, “Everyone deserves not just to survive, but to live. This is the most important legacy of Solomon Northup.” This film sheds light on an often shielded or covered-up subject. This film helps us become made aware of this period of history, and helps us examine how we can still perpetuate these things today. The film “12 Years a Slave” is an agonizing but moving picture of America’s history of slavery, not an easy one to watch but one you must see.

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