“12 Years a Slave” Review

A black slave is called to the master’s house just before sunset. It has been a long day’s work. The slave, Platt, engineered a new means to transport logs via the swampy river rather than carrying them by land and he spent the day working with others to ferry logs down the river. The entire forestry operation is now running more smoothly than ever. And after weeks and months at the merciless hands of the wiry slavedriver doing menial tasks, it’s a relief for Platt to exercise his often ignored or even oppressed intelligence. He presents himself to the master, a preacher by the name of William Ford, and the master greets Platt like an old friend. He’s even jovial. He thanks him again, and pulls a fiddle out of a nearby box, handing it over to Platt. A gift for a job well done.

“I hope this will bring us both a great deal of joys over the years, Platt.”

It’s meant to be a kind gesture, the kindest a complacent man could give in a cruel world in which he has neither the will nor the means to see it changed.  

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William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) presents “Platt” with the Violin

That scene was one of the more telling — and certainly most mild — scenes in 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. Here we have an educated, free black man who is tricked into slavery, and though his new master undoubtedly suspects that Platt is no common slave, he does nothing at all to earnestly help the man, instead patronizing him with a fiddle; a girft that will benefit himself more than Platt.

Adapted from the memoirs of the same name, 12 Years a Slave chronicles the experiences of this free black man in the 1840’s, whose real name is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He lives in Saratoga Springs, New York but after a dubious work-related trip for a musical gig, he is abducted and forced into slavery in Georgia, beaten into assuming the name of a runaway slave: Platt. As Solomon struggles to adjust to his new life, he must contemplate not only his own bizarre predicament, but the inhumane lives of his newfound companions that were bred, born, and lived in slavery their whole lives. What is the value of a kind gesture or gift when its given from a position of condescension? Does it mean anything for a slaver to be a “good man”? And what of those slavers who are not so kind?

Stories like this one have been told time and again in literature and cinema — and certainly taught about in grade school — but what really makes 12 Years a Slave stand out amongst the rest is its grounding in a personal experience. Director Steve McQueen wasn’t trying to make some sweeping condemnation of slavery by way of a historical account. The movie instead opts to focus on the real-life experiences of Solomon as a man. This is Solomon’s story, and the story of one friend that he comes to make along the way; this is not a story about slavery. It’s a subtle difference — and one that I’m not sure everyone will agree with — but for me it was paramount in making this movie what it was.

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The film is grounded in grounded Chiwotel Ejiofor’s performance. Solomon is a man that carries himself with dignity and grace and though he can typically remain calm, his frustration is always boiling just below the surface. He’s a caring father and a genuinely kind, loving man. He is educated, sophisticated, artistic, and most important: free. He enjoyed many privileges that most blacks of the time were deprived of in his life in the middle class. Very early in the movie, before Solomon is officially sold into slavery, he is rounded up and beaten with a small group of other unfortunate souls. Another black man, one more cynical than Solomon, quickly recognizes and acknowledges his intelligence and offers bleak advice: keep your head down because there is nothing you can do. Though Solomon might be a free man, he is still black, and once you are south of the Mason-Dixon line, that’s all that really matters. That’s all it takes. There’s virtually nothing Solomon can do to improve his circumstance other than accept it without protest. And though he lives and works with slaves, he at once also stands apart from them because of his education, and that makes his experience all the more difficult.

As William Ford’s property, Solomon is valued as a worker, but never as a human being. In that way his atypical treatment is that much more cruel. It was Edmund Burke that said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In this story, William Ford is one of those God-fearing “good men” that makes the deliberate choice to sit there and do nothing even when he knows what is right and even when Solomon is pleading with him for help. What weight does that kind of cruelty put on a man’s soul? This question is raised numerous times throughout the movie, and we see its affect on characters both distributing and receiving that cruelty.

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Epps, Patsey, and Solomon

For one reason or another, Solomon winds up at a different plantation, where the more stereotypical mad slave owner rules over his slaves with wild, and oftentimes drunken, authority. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the man’s name, and though he is married, he is in love with a young slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) who is somehow able to pick over 500 pounds of cotton on a daily basis (more than double the next best slave). It is here, at the Epps Plantation, where evil rears its ugly head. Edwin Epps is quite literally a mad man whose impartial cruelty is eclipsed only by his infatuation with Patsey. 

Partially because the film was grounded in a historical account, it’s forced into rigid constraints for the story and it both thrives and is diminished when we encounter Patsey. Once we set foot on the Epps plantation the story doesn’t become about Solomon anymore. We are instead captivated by Patsey. She is both cherished possession and object of affection. She is a sweet, young girl who is powerless to do anything against Epps’ advances or the violent spite of his wife. We begin to lose sight of Solomon in favor of Patsey until the film’s resolution which, though satisfying, winds up feeling really anticlimactic. From a narrative standpoint, this makes the film feel a bit convoluted.

From a technical standpoint, 12 Years a Slave makes good use of tense, long shots that linger on a character, embracing the inherent tension and enhancing the drama. These include close-ups on character’s faces that rely on the subtlety of Lupita Nyong’o‘s or Chiwetel Ejiofor‘s acting talent, both of which are formidable and in Nyong’o’s case, award winning.

Ultimately, 12 Years a Slave is an incredible film that deserves all of the accolades it has received. The climax isn’t altogether that satisfying, but that’s likely only because you know it’s coming. It’s called 12 years a Slave after all, isn’t it?

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