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Film Review: ‘12 Years a Slave’




Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. (Image: Fox Searchlight)

Towering profiles of moss-hung oaks, silhouetted against languid Southern sunsets, form some of the indelible images from Steve McQueen’s new film. So too do gruesome close-ups of the scarred backs of antebellum slaves, whose skin has hardened to bark by years of whippings. This is the central visual paradox in 12 Years a Slave, which contrasts quiet moments of primeval, pastoral beauty with the loud, primitive violence practiced by plantation owners.

This is not an easy film to watch, and not simply for its graphic mayhem. The conversational racism of the slavers and the shrugging acceptance of the “peculiar institution” by the story’s more enlightened figures suggest a moral bankruptcy that only the coming Civil War could overcome. That realization will put many white viewers on the spot: It’s an easy thing to boo a tyranny from the safe distance of 170 years, but how do we respond toward more contemporary evils – evils that some may take for granted?

12 Years a Slave’s script, by John Ridley, is based on an 1853 memoir of the same name by Solomon Northup, a violinist and free black man who lived in Saratoga, New York. During an 1841 trip to Washington, D.C., he is abducted by two men who sell him off as a runaway slave. The subsequent events in Northup’s unhappy experience in Louisiana will be familiar to anyone who’s read Arthur Hailey’s Roots or has seen its treatment in the 1977 TV miniseries – the awful realization of enslavement and the passage from one master to another.

Unfortunately for Northup, who is played with gentle charm by Chiwetel Ejiofor, that passage moves from bad to decidedly worse fairly quickly. “Worse” is incarnated by Michael Fassbender, whose planter character, Edwin Epps, combines a delirious sense of divine entitlement with alcoholic rage. Whenever Northup contemplates the twilight’s horizon of boundless freedom, and the trackless wilderness that separates him from escape, he knows the devil is literally at his back. Northup has learned the hard way that Epps is never more dangerous than when he drunkenly drapes a chummy arm around one of his slaves, prior to delivering a tirade or beating.

It’s not much of a spoiler alert, given that Northup lived to write and publish his book, to say that “it gets better” for the violinist. What’s thoroughly depressing, of course, is knowing that he was one of a very small number of abducted free blacks who eventually escaped their captivity.

But after we’re done hissing the story’s many villains, we’re left with the more unsettling questions concerning greed and power. Most of us would probably like to think we would’ve stood up and given Joe McCarthy a piece of our minds, or would have gladly sheltered Anne Frank’s family — or would have moved heaven and earth to secure Solomon Northup’s freedom. But McQueen’s film challenges our assumptions about human intentions and self-perception. It’s not that we’d ever choose to be an Edwin Epps, but that we might be content with being one of those enlightened Christians who looked the other way when confronted with the plight of a Solomon Northup. That role, in some important ways, represents the worse villainy.

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