A large group of black men in tattered cotton tunics stood with sweat dripping off them in rivulets, dreading looks on their faces. A white man speaks off camera, explaining how to cut sugarcane to his liking.
One particular man stands out.
Shorter than the others, standing in front of the crowd, he stares through big hazel-rimmed brown eyes at the white plantation owner, distrusting and angry. This man’s story, the story of Solomon Northup, is one wrought with betrayal and pain.
Based on the memoir of the same title, “12 Years a Slave,” is an adaptation of the trials of Northup, a freeman kidnapped from his home in Saratoga, N.Y. and sold into slavery.
Directed by Steve McQueen, director of 2011’s NC-17 Oscar snub, “Shame” controversy, this film serves as a beautiful and harsh critique of America’s gravest mistake, with all the grace that the art cinema director can muster.
“12 Years a Slave,” stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northupand Brad Pitt plays the carpenter who writes to Northup’s family in New York and obtains his “free papers.” Michael Fassbender plays the wicked alcoholic, Master Epps, and Sarah Paulson plays his wife, Mistress Epps.
Even the supporting cast is star-studded, with actors Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano and Alfre Woodard, who unfortunately is only on screen in one scene.
McQueen brings Northup’s harrowing story to life with excruciating realism. Every word spoken is spoken in the vernacular of the times, and the horrific mistreatment of slaves has never been more eloquently expressed.
A particularly horrible scene depicts a freewoman, Eliza (played by Adepero Oduye), being sold at an in-home auction with her two children.
Giamatti as the slave trader wants to sell Eliza separately from her children because of the high price they will fetch when they are older. As Eliza begs both the trader and the buyer (Cumberbatch) not to break up her family, the men are locked in a haggling battle, with the trader ultimately winning and the children being ripped from Eliza.
As they are dragged out of the room kicking and screaming, Northup, a talented fiddler by trade, picks up his violin and plays a jaunty tune to distract the other slaves.
At one point, Northup defends himself from being stabbed by the white carpenter (Dano), and is almost hanged for it, when the overseer of the plantation stops the hanging. Instead of letting Northup go, the overseer leaves him hanging there for an entire day, balancing on his toes, trying to breathe.
When his master finally comes to cut him down, the entire audience sharply inhaled. The tension in the room was palpable.
When Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Patsey, becomes a major character in the story, the film takes off. Patsey is Master Epps’ favorite slave; she picks more than 500 pounds of cotton a day, she doesn’t complain and she is exceptionally beautiful. The outrageous cruelty shown to Patsey by Mistress Epps is particularly atrocious, however. Heavy bottles of liquor are thrown at her face, she is raped repeatedly by Master Epps and ultimately, she is deprived of soap by Mistress Epps.
When Patsey runs off to the adjoining plantation to beg for soap from the once-slave-turned-mistress of a plantation phenomenon, played by Woodard, she returns to a paranoid, irate Master Epps. When she explains to him why she left, she is tied to a post while Master Epps forces Northup to strike her. When Northup refuses, the sheer viciousness with which Master Epps beats Patsey caused some members of the audience to leave the theater.
Many films about slavery have been made. Many have been moving, and many have been life changing – none so much as “12 Years a Slave.”
Maybe it is the sheer fact that the director took no liberties with the truth, or that Northup’s story is so unjust, but this film will stir inside of people. Not only is it beautifully shot and powerfully acted out, but its characters are also so rich and alive that people will identify with some aspect of the tale.
People left the theater speechless and teary as the credits rolled and beautiful voices sang “Roll Jordan Roll.” There was truly a sense of loss in the air.