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12 Years a Slave [Book + Movie Review]

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12 Years a Slave is a movie about the unfortunate life events of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Solomon was a violinist who lived with his wife and two young children in Saratoga Springs, NY in 1841. Solomon became acquainted with two men while his family was out of town on a trip. He journeyed with them to Washington, DC under the pretense of an opportunity to earn a good deal of money for a short stint as a violinist in a circus.

Solomon Northup and family.
Solomon Northup and his family in Saratoga Springs, NY.

The promise of work was actually a ruse to lure him away from his home to a slave state. Once in Washington, DC, Northup’s travel companions drugged, kidnapped and sold him into slavery. As a free man, chained and shackled in place, Northup struggles to get free. The reality and seeming futility of his circumstances set-in and Northup’s captors force him to become “Platt”, a slave.

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup
Solomon Northup at dinner with his travel companions.

As Platt travels south, he gets a glimpse of a few facets of slavery that expose the inhumanity of the institution.

In a fascinating scene, Platt sits between two male slaves who discuss options for dealing with their circumstances. Is it better to keep your head down and suffer injustices to avoid more severe repercussions? Or to take a chance at putting up a fight and risk death for a chance at freedom? Platt sees both men follow their own beliefs but settles on his own path which he sees as the only possible way back to his family and freedom. The discussion conveys thoughts that flowed through the minds of many slaves and oppressed people in general. These questions reappear in various forms throughout 12 Years a Slave.

An abominable slave trader organizes a “genteel” slave auction that destroys a family. The heartbreaking event results in the sale of Platt to his first master: Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Ford seems to be a decent man but he is still a slave owner. I’ve always found it curious that men and women who were “decent” took part in slavery. One could only imagine the excuses they’d have to develop to rationalize the contradiction to themselves.

While Ford is master of his plantation, his overseer Tibeats (Paul Dano) manages the slaves on a day-to-day basis. Unfortunately, Tibeats is an insecure young man that hates the very air Platt breathes and finds excuses to torment him. During a run-in with Tibeats, Platt defends himself and finds his life hanging by a thread as punishment.

There are other slaves milling about during and after the exchange but none dared to intervene. For a moment, it’s unclear if the other slaves ignore Platt’s circumstances out of fear or desensitization to brutality. Yet, in that tense moment, someone steps forward to offer a small token of humanity in a merciful act of bravery.

As a result of this incident, Ford sells Platt to Edwin Epps, a slave owner renown for his ability to “manage” difficult slaves.

Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is a sociopath prone to random mood swings between unnerving calm and insatiable rage. He focuses some of his inappropriate intensity on Platt but also shines its evil on a young slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps views his slaves as being his possessions which takes the form of an obsession with Patsey much to the chagrin of his unstable wife.

Patsey
Patsey picking cotton.

Nyong’o delivered a brilliant performance in 12 Years a Slave that made it her breakout role. She captured the soul-killing pressure of being the non-consenting object of obsession for an evil man. And conveyed the suffocating difficulty of dealing with the misplaced hatred of his jealous wife.

Patsey and Platt
Patsey asks Platt to help her find a way out of her dire circumstances.

Hate is a strong word. But not strong enough to describe how much I detested Epps and his wife. In a perfect world, Epps would have worked himself into a rage, dropped dead, and taken his wife with him through some means of divine intervention. At the same time, I understood the idea of Patsey wanting to die because her situation felt hopeless. It was weird to find myself wishing someone dead as an act of vengeance but also accepting someone’s wish for death as an act of mercy.

There are several instances of yin and yang, light and the dark, throughout the movie where the contrasts of opposites make things clearer. For example, there’s a scene where Epps takes Platt from the darkness and relative safety of the slave cabin out into the yard.

Epps and Platt in the darkness.
Epps interrogation on Platt in the darkness of night.

They move from an overcrowded rough cabin to outside where there is open land and nobody else around. The environment should feel freeing but Epps’ presence makes the outdoors feel claustrophobic. Platt’s life once again hangs in the balance as he stands in the dark with the only light coming from Epps’ lantern. Epps emits unwanted light much like his menacing interrogation that seeks to search Platt’s mind. Platt isn’t safe until the light of Epps’ lantern is gone and he’s once again in darkness.

There is another situation where Epps has Platt punish Patsey. The punishment delivered by Platt is violent and terrible from the audience’s view in its own right. Yet, it becomes even more unsettling when Epps takes over resulting in a shift in the literal and symbolic view.

Epps, Patsy, and Platt
Epps’ obsession with Patsey leads to moments of unchecked rage.

The ability to cope is necessary for survival but diminishes with the loss of hope. Solomon’s longing for his family made him miserable but the thought of returning to them kept him going and helped him to survive. But, my heart broke at the thought of what might have happened to Patsey. It seemed she’d lost hope and was only living because she was afraid of dying.

Solomon and Patsey say goodbye.
Solomon and Patsey say goodbye.

Recommendation

12 Years a Slave is at its core a movie about desperation, hope, coping, and survival. It displays the tightrope act of trying to balance those things under the enormous pressure of the social rules of slavery. 12 Years a Slave is a well-made and thought-provoking movie. It’s unfortunate that there was a real Solomon Northup who’s life and autobiography inspired the movie.

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