BY SAMANTHA YEZERSKI The film 12 Years a Slave is undoubtedly moving and powerful, if difficult to watch at times. It provides an unapologetic and uncensored view into America’s most shameful time in history. Detailing the very real and very shocking story of Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave allows us to view the horrors of slavery in America in an honest way.
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from Saratoga, is offered a job as a violinist in a circus and is brought to Washington D.C. The two men he travels with drug Northup and sell him into slavery. He is then transported to New Orleans where we witness the first heart-wrenching reality of slavery: a mother being separated from her young son and daughter. The screaming sobs of mother and daughter ring in our ears long after the scene cuts away.
Northup is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), owner of a large cotton plantation. Ford is a relatively generous, kind slave owner who preaches to his enslaved workers every Sunday, a hypocrisy that does not go unnoticed. Despite Ford being a seemingly fair master, atrocities still occur on his property. One of the more horrific scenes of the movie happens on Ford’s plantation at the hands of the overseer, John Tibeats (Paul Dano).
Viewers are forced to look on in agony as Northup dangles from a tree with a noose around his neck and his feet barely touching the ground for what seems like an eternity. We hold our collective breaths as Northup gasps for his; the scene is both physically and emotionally painful. The confrontation leads to Ford selling Northup to the only slave-owner who will take him: the sociopath Edward Epps.
Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a ruthless slave breaker. He is truly terrifying, and from the time that Northup arrives, viewers are exposed to the extreme cruelty of slavery. Epps is infatuated with one of his slaves on the plantation, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). He repeatedly rapes and beats Patsey, who also happens to be the best worker among both the enslaved men and enslaved women. Epps’s wife (Sarah Paulsen) is visibly jealous of her husband’s affection for Patsey. Mrs. Epps beats Patsey multiple times and even throws a bottle at her face. The storyline of master’s wife and enslaved people is not one that is often addressed in such narratives, and McQueen does a good job of calling attention to it by showing that oftentimes the wives of slave owners could be just as brutal as their husbands.
As critic Dana Stevens points out in her review, the beautiful camerawork in 12 Years a Slave is at odds with the graphic scenes that play out in front of our eyes. The cinematography enhances an enthralling tale of struggle and survival, and the performances are equally notable.
Ejiofor gives a heartbreakingly convincing performance as a once proud man beaten and broken down into submission whose only goal is to survive. Lupita Nyong’o stands out among the supporting actors and carrying what is arguably the most striking scene of the entire movie. Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, Benedict Cumberbatch, and the other actors all help to bring this narrative to life, and expose all the evils of slavery.
The most disturbing element of the film is not found in the specific, not the rape scenes or the images of innocent men and women being beaten and killed, but it rests in the simple fact that this is an accurate representation of our nation’s history. It is an honest and true account based on a published memoir that forces everyone to acknowledge the past and work toward a better future.