Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free black man living in upstate New York with his wife and two kids in 1841. Solomon is tricked by two slave catchers, named Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton, (Teran Killam) who tell Solomon they are with the circus, but really ply him with liquor and sell him into slavery to the plantation of Ford, (Benedict Cumberbatch) who also buys a slave woman named Eliza (Adepero Oduye), but Ford cannot buy Eliza’s kids.
Ford is a relatively good hearted person, but that does not spare Solomon from cruel treatment from one of the field bosses named Tibeats (Paul Dano) who tries to hang Solomon and leaves him hanging there until Ford cuts him down. If things are not bad enough with Ford, Solomon, now given the name Platt, is sent to the cruel and sadistic slave owner Edwin Epps. (Michael Fassbender)
Epps thinks of his slaves as his property, and will do anything to bend their actions to his will; Epps literally wants them to dance when he plays a tune. Epps does not like Platt, and makes it his job to break him. Epps does have a fondness for Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) and Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) sees how much attention Patsey is getting from her husband, she shows her displeasure by throwing a whiskey decanter at her head. When Mr. Epps sees Solomon talking to Patsey, he whips Solomon and tells Patsey to stay away from him. When Patsey goes to another plantation for a bar of soap, Epps orders Solomon to whip her, and then viciously whips Patsey himself. Patsey is also repeatedly raped by Mr. Epps, and she can take no more.
Patsey begs Solomon to kill her, he steadfastly refuses. Instead Solomon a man named Armsby (Garrett Dillhunt) a man on Epps plantation, who seems to be sympathetic to Solomon’s plight, to deliver a letter to some abolitionists up North, who know that Solomon is a free man. Instead Armsby tells Epps of Solomon’s plan, and Epps burns the letter. Later, a Canadian named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt) shows up to Epps’ plantation and Solomon asks Bass to deliver a similar letter to the one that he asked Armsby to deliver. Does Bass do it? Or does he doublecross Solomon, as Armsby had done?
This is a brutally violent movie, but it is also brutally honest. I usually don’t care for historical dramas about slavery or segregation from Hollywood, because they tend to change the history to fit whatever end they’re trying to put forth, or they try to sugarcoat the experience of slavery or segregation in some kind of revisionist feel-good way. If you don’t know what I mean, please see The Help. I know the character of Solomon Northup existed because he published a biography contemporaneously to his kidnapping, and this movie does not sugarcoat his life.
The tendency with traumatic historical events is to try to forget them, sweep things under the rug, and cleanse the collective psyche. I am not one to dwell on events like slavery or the Holocaust, but I think every once in a while, the country and the world needs a jolt to remember how brutal and inhumane man can be to his fellow man. This movie with its graphic violence, and unflinching point of view, provides that jolt, and demands to be seen. My reaction to this movie is one of profound sadness, sadness that founding fathers who professed freedom and liberty for all, kept men and women as property, and by their inaction kept the brutal business of the flesh trade going on far longer than it should have. I feel sadness for the millions who lost their lives based on the premise of complete servitude or separate and unequal. I feel sadness that although we have made great strides as a country, we have a long way to go in truly respecting the different racial and ethnic groups that make up America. I want you to see this film, and when you see some politician talking about ‘losing your freedoms’ to make a rhetorical argument, I want you to think of Solomon Northup, and all he lost, and think about how free you are in comparison.
But always remember, if someone really does ask you for papers to try to take away your right to vote, or try to prove your citizenship, fight those laws with all your might. Those laws are akin to Solomon Norhup carrying papers to prove he is a free man, and those laws need to be changed, just as slavery was abolished and the Jim Crow laws were changed.
The writing by John Ridley is poignant and heartbreaking. Even when Solomon is not being whipped or beaten, the fear of slavery and its attendant pain follows him around like a constant shadow. He bears the pain of Eliza, who weeps constantly at the loss of her children, he is asked by Patsey to kill her, she prefers death to being even a favored slave. Solomon sees hangings of runaway slaves all too routinely. The stories of Solomon, Eliza and Patsey are intertwined and so the viewer, not only cares about Solomon, but the ladies as well.
The direction by Steve McQueen is truly noteworthy. Almost from the first scene the film envelops the viewer. In that first scene the camera is at eye level and wading through the sugar cane fields of Louisiana. To illustrate the voyage down South McQueen focuses on the paddle wheel of the riverboat, and when the wheel fills the whole screen, the scene is over. That is captivating camera work. There is one scene that stood out in the movie, however. When Solomon is hanging on the tree, put there by Tibbeats, the other slaves go on with their business, seemingly oblivious to the man literally hanging in their midst, until one slave woman gives him a glass of water and meekly scurries away. They are so afraid of the master’s retribution that they dare not cut Solomon down. And McQueen lets that scene play out for an excruciatingly long time. That is great filmmaking. If you don’t know this Steve McQueen, watch Hunger, about the hunger strike initiated by Bobby Sands in Northern Ireland.
The acting is absolutely top notch. Fassbender is a raving dog one minute, and calmly ordering everyone to dance the next, he knows he can make these slaves do anything, they are toys to him, puppets. It is that controlled rage that makes his performance so interesting to watch, he will be nominated for Best Actor, Chiwetel Egiofor gives a stunning performance as Solomon, he can hardly believe what happened to him, and now he’s got to outwit his masters and stay alive, at a time when his life was worth nothing more than the amount of cotton he can pick. He should be nominated for Best Actor as well. The women in this film are phenomenal as well Adepero Oduye is outstanding as Eliza, she conveys the pain of separation from her two children about as well as anyone I’ve seen. Lupita Nyong’o gives a heart-stopping performance as Patsey, this is her debut film. And Sarah Paulson is also outstanding as the stern, domineering Mistress Epps. All three of them deserve nominations. Paul Dano and Paul Giamatti are also very good, the only laggard in the bunch is Brad Pitt, who plays a boring character in a predictable way. Mr. Pitt, I appreciate the money you put forth and the skill you used to get this movie made, but please resist the temptation of casting yourself in the movies you produce.
There is lots of violence, and language and some nudity, but older teens can watch it, heck they might even want to read the book.
12 Years A Slave. A movie for the ages.