Sold Down the River

12 Years a Slave

twelve_years_a_slave

Director: Steve McQueen

Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Brad Pitt, Quvenzhané Wallis, Michael Kenneth Williams

Based upon Solomon Northup’s groundbreaking novel, 12 Years a Slave published in 1853 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/12_Years_a_Slave, British director Steve McQueen brings the critically acclaimed film version to the big screen exposing the cruelty, violence and brutality of the slave trade in the Antebellum Deep South prior to the American Civil War. Audiences have to bear in mind that 12 years a Slave is set in 1841, the first half of the 19th century when America having broken away from Britain was expanding its nation commercially especially in the Southern States like Georgia, Louisiana and basically most South Eastern states below the Mason-Dixon line from Virginia downwards.

Nevertheless, director McQueen emphasizes the emotional and physical imprisonment of both slave and slave owner in a terrifying master servant relationship which is based entirely on commerce and the expansion of agricultural land in the vast cotton-picking states of the American South East where slave owners viewed slaves as their personal property to be bought, sold or exchanged for debts as part of payment for arable land. Despite the commercial exchange and vicious currency of slavery, this does not excuse the devastating effects it had on the African American people who become slaves often ripping families apart as well as being subjected to all sorts of human rights abuses which would be unimaginable in a 21st century America with Barack Obama as president.

Slavery is a tough subject to contextualize onscreen and British director McQueen takes the challenge head on and show through the extraordinarily horrific experience of Solomon Northup (superbly played by British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor) who as a free man in Saratoga, New York travels as part of a minstrel band to Washington DC where after a drunken night is drugged and sold into slavery and literally shipped down the Mississippi river to the slave port of New Orleans.

Northup first becomes the property of seemingly benevolent land owner Ford played by Benedict Cumberbatch (The Fifth Estate), but after an altercation with the vicious plantation manager Tibeats an excellent cameo by Paul Dano, is transferred as part of a debt owing to the even more sadistic plantation owner Epps brutally played by Michael Fassbender. On Epps’s cotton picking Louisiana plantation, Northup meets the vulnerable but tough Patsey (an excellent performance by screen newcomer and Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong’o) who becomes the forbidden object of desire by the psychotic, bored and lustful Epps.

It is really Nyong’o’s Patsey who endures rape, torture and a particularly cruel whipping scene which elevates 12 Years a Slave into a shocking and harrowing portrayal of the absolute horrific conditions of 19th century slavery in the deep South, conditions so horrendous that the Northern states eventually intervened in a bid to abolish slavery resulting in the bloody American Civil War from 1861 to 1865 – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_Civil_War.

12_years_a_slave_2

McQueen’s film while at times lacking in narrative structure, is still an absorbing historical portrayal of humanity’s capacity to inflict cruelty and suffering on their fellow humans, a point which Brad Pitt’s character Bass emphasizes and who eventually assists Northup in his bid for emancipation. Shot in the suffocating heat of a Louisiana summer, 12 Years a Slave is atmospheric, brilliantly acted and deeply disturbing and a testament to man’s own ability to survive under vicious circumstances.

Whilst 12 Years a Slave won People’s Choice Award at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival and has nine 2014 Oscar nominations, it is really the breakout performance of Lupita Nyong’o who shines amongst a British American cast including Alfre Woodard, Sarah Paulson, Paul Giamatti and Benedict Cumberbatch and Quvenzhané Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild as Northup’s daughter Margaret.

This is recommended viewing for lovers of historical films, but be warned 12 Years a Slave is cruel, violent and shocking, which is exactly McQueen’s intention in showing up Slavery as one of Mankind’s most atrocious historical eras, a completely ruthless and harrowing practice, offering a contemporary cinematic counterpoint to the 1939 classic Gone With the Wind.

 

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