“12 Years a Slave” is a masterpiece that strips morality to the bone; it shreds any vague notion of nostalgia for American history. Watching this riveting film that bares the total lack of civilized humanity in the southern plantation system put in place by the sons of European gentry–barbarians through and through who read Biblical passages to those they whip, rape, and degrade physically, psychologically, and emotionally in every conceivably twisted and evil fashion–is a soul crushing experience. You will survive watching this true story set to screen that wrenches your sensibilities as bloody as the backs of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Patsy (Lupita Nyong’o), but you will be forever changed by it. You will be left wondering who these white slavers were who would kidnap a human being and sell them into hell itself, for a bit of silver in their pockets. Who were these depraved plantation owners who could commit such acts of brutality without conscience?
In American Nations: A History of the Eleven Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, we learn that the founding fathers of the Deep South arrived by sea, their ships dropping anchor off what is now Charleston. Unlike their counterparts (who Woodard identifies as Tidewater, Yankeedom, New Netherland, and New France) they had not come directly from Europe. Rather, they were the sons and grandsons of the founders of an older English colony: Barbados, the richest and most horrifying society in the English-speaking world.
The society they founded in Charleston did not seek to replicate rural English manor life or to create a religious utopia in the American wilderness. Instead, it was a near carbon copy of the West Indian slave state these Barbadians had left behind, a place notorious even then for its inhumanity. Enormously profitable for those who controlled it, this unadulterated slave society would spread rapidly across the lowlands of what is now South Carolina, overwhelming the utopian colony of Georgia, and spawning the dominant culture of Mississippi, lowland Alabama, the Louisiana Delta country, eastern Texas and Arkansas, western Tennessee, north Florida, and the southeastern portion of North Carolina. From the outset, Deep Southern culture was based on radical disparities in wealth and power, with a tiny elite commanding total obedience and enforcing it with state-sponsored terror. Its expansionist ambitions would put it on a collision course with its Yankee rivals, triggering military, social, and political conflicts that continue to plague the United States to this day.
Founding Father John Dickinson said of them, “they were cruel people… a few lords vested with despotic power over myriad vassals and supported in pomp by their slavery.” (pp 82-83)
As for the free white liberal laborer (Brad Pitt) who is ultimately responsible for getting word to Northup’s people in the upstate New York, and who subsequently prove his free-man status, it is a part of Northup’s story that is also historically linked to Woodard’s eleven nations. There were two New French settlements: they include what is now the lower third of Quebec, and northern and northeastern New Brunswick, as well as Acadia (for Cajun)—enclaves of southern Louisiana. New French were northern French peasantry long opposed to overlords. Their culture assimilated with the indigenous people they encountered, rather than opposing them in warfare. They were freedom-loving, down-to-earth, egalitarian, and consensus driven, who today remain the most liberal people on the North American continent. Woodard tells us, New Orleans is a border city mixing New French with Deep Southern elements. (p 9-10)
With that bit of history in mind, don’t miss this outstanding film. The performances are superb—Ejiofor will no longer be a brilliant, but unknown talent, rather his face and name will be as embedded and familiar as all the cinema greats. The story is flawlessly scripted, the cinematography puts you in the bayou in 1841. You won’t want to be there, but… go anyway.
The following review is by Rick Marianetti, Examiner.com
Director Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” is based on Solomon Northup’s horrific memoir of being drugged, kidnapped and sold into slavery at the age of 33. Although written eight years before the Civil War, Northup’s first-person account of losing his family and his freedom resonates with the 21st century in unexpected ways.
When the movie begins, Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor in one of the most emotionally grueling performances you will ever see) is a free man with a wife and three children living in Saratoga, N.Y. If you were a black American during the time of slavery, being born in the North was not enough to ensure your safety, even if you were highly educated and played violin. After being taken in by a ruse, Northup wakes up to a nightmare, chained to the wall inside a slave-dungeon holding cell in – of all places – Washington D.C.
Northup writes, “I had not then learned the measure of ‘man’s inhumanity to man,’ nor to what limitless extent of wickedness he will go for the love of gain.” Of the 100 or so first-person accounts of U.S. slavery, “12 Years” is the only one composed by an individual who was born a free man.
The life of a slave is depicted in all its inglorious, institutionalized depravity. When Northup tries to explain his true identity to a captor, the result is the beginning of a series of beatings, flesh-ripping floggings and ongoing psychic torture.
Some scenes are almost too ghastly to watch; the fact that the behavior on screen approximates actual incidents and attitudes of a democratic nation – not a totalitarian state – is beyond comprehension.
Stripped of his money and papers that prove he’s a free man, Northup is bought and sold like a head of steer and finally shipped to Louisiana. Cattle are one thing, but slaves were often treated even worse. Farm animals might suffer neglect, but the disturbing historical truth is that, under certain conditions, humans have inflicted the most sadistic pain and humiliation on eachother, often in the name of some “ideal” or religious personage.
Northup’s first owner, Freeman (Paul Giamatti), sells him to the more benign William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), whose brutality is limited to his view of blacks as chattel.
Northup would not be so lucky at the plantation of Edwin and Mistress Epps (Michael Fassbender and Sarah Paulson), where their twisted interpersonal dysfunction poisons the master-slave dynamic even further.
Swept up into this hellishly toxic morass is Patsey, heartbreakingly played by Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o.
While it’s against the law for slaves to learn to read and write, playing a musical instrument is tolerated – but in this context, even the joy of music is made perverse.
Hans Zimmer’s superb score ranges from idyllic to darkly electronic, while Nicholas Britell’s black neo-spirituals have possibly unintended consequences. Heard and seen in context of Northup’s world only deepens one’s appreciation of what is already one of the most powerful, intensely passionate folk idioms in the world. You may never hear Black gospel music the same way again.