Raw Brutality in '12 Years a Slave'

‘12 Years A Slave’ explores the shameful stain of human bondage

By Lori Hoffman
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 23, 2013

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There have been numerous movies over the decades that have explored the Holocaust, too many to mention. Many of those films have included scenes that show modern German citizens who ignore or deny their past.

Steve McQueen’s brutally honest depiction of slavery in America based on a true story, 12 Years A Slave, hits like a sledgehammer, in part because it suggests that films about slavery are rare because we are guilty of burying the shameful aspects of our history as well. 

The remarkable British/ Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor (Choo-it-tell Edge-ee-o-for) stars as Solomon Northrup, the free man kidnapped and sold into slavery for the 12 years of the title. We first meet Northrup in his home in upstate New York, a free man and musician who is part of the community, seemingly without any racial tension.

As a man who has never felt the sting of being considered less than human because of the color of his skin, he has no defense against the men who trick him and make a fast buck by selling him into slavery.

His shock, outrage and desire for justice are soon beaten and whipped into submission on the surface. He learns that guile must be his friend, that he must hide his intelligence and especially his anger.

McQueen uses this true story, based on Northrup’s own account, to shine a floodlight on the horrifying barbarism of slavery. If you thought Quentin Tarantino showed the brutality of slavery in Django Unchained, you might find the savagery in McQueen’s film hard to watch.

McQueen wants us to truly understand the torture of slavery. We feel the agony of a woman being flayed with a whip to the point of turning away from the screen. That woman is Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), a slave who both fascinates and repels her sadistic owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). When he isn’t whipping her to please his wife, he is praising her for her skill in picking cotton and raping her nightly.

Faced with a world where his humanity has been stolen, Northrup’s courage and determination are well hidden from those who scan his responses for any signs that he is getting uppity. His ordeal seems hopeless, but his will to live won’t let him give in to the despair. Ejiofor was introduced to art-house audiences in Steven Frears’ superb Dirty Pretty Things and has been building his resume ever since, from supporting roles in Serenity, Children of Men and Salt to starring roles in Red Belt and the flashy Lola in Kinky Boots. Now he has found the role of a lifetime and delivers an unforgettable performance, using his expressive eyes to convey the pain, agony and rage his character must keep hidden.

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