By Taylor Edwards
The blemish of American slavery has been explored through both cinema and books. Some, both black and white alike, may think that this part of American history has been told a sufficient amount of times.
But then a movie like “12 Years a Slave” comes along and proves in a strikingly honest way that this kind of story has been far from adequately told.
“12 Years a Slave,” directed by British filmaker Steve McQueen, follows the life of Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor.
Northup begins the movie as a successful musician living as a free black man in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., with his wife and two children.
After being approached by two traveling musicians visiting from Washington D.C., Northup accepts an offer to go back to the nation’s capital with the intention of performing there for a few weeks.
After an evening out in D.C. with the two gentlemen, Northup drinks a significant amount and ends up sick and passed out in his bed.
The next morning, he wakes up cold and alone in a secluded prison cell, with both his hands and feet chained to the floor. Northup has been trafficked by the two gentlemen, and while he was a free man just 24 hours ago, he is now stripped of his former identity and deemed a slave.
The startling fact that makes this movie so incredibly compelling is just that—–Solomon Northup, who was just a free man living a successful life, becomes a slave in a matter of hours.
Acting as Northup, Ejiofor places us directly into the current horror that he is experiencing. We are in that prison cell with him as he realizes that everything he had and, more importantly everything he was, is now erased, with no certain hope on the horizon to reclaim back his former self.
Throughout the film, we as an audience are exposed to the absolute horror that was slavery in the United States. After being shackled up alone in a prison cell for a day, Northup joins a few other trafficked slaves as they travel via water to New Orleans where he is purchased as a slave by plantation owner William Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch.
While on the plantation, Northup finds himself battling with the fact that he is expected to comply with his white superiors, no matter how ridiculous the request may be.
At one point, Northup gets in a physical altercation with one of the plantation staff after he is told that he is incorrectly building a structure.
After being hanged and nearly killed, plantation owner Ford saves Northup but is forced to sell him to Edwin Epps, an extremely racist and abusive planter.
Epps, spectacularly played by Michael Fassbender, encompasses the ignorance and irrational nature of slavery in one character. Epps expects his slaves to pick at least 200 pounds of cotton a day, with anything short of it resulting in a brutal beating.
Epps sees the slaves as entertainment, as seen in one scene where he calls them into his home in the middle of the night and demands them to dance with one another while music plays.
He is a deranged and power-driven man who gains strength and affirmation through the act of watching his slaves suffer through intensive labor and inhumane punishment.
At the end of the film, Northup finds salvation through the help of a Canadian laborer Bass, played by Brad Pitt, who risks his life by delivering a letter to Northup’s family after Northup confides to him about his life and kidnapping.
As Northup is leaving the hell that is Epps’ plantation, one of his companions Patsy runs up to him and embraces him before he departs.
Despite the fact that Northup is eventually saved, the scene ends with him departing the plantation with Patsy and the other slaves seen remaining in the foreground, poignantly depicting the grave reality that even though Solomon’s salvation is certainly a triumph, the terror at Epps’ plantation will still continue.
Director Steve McQueen artfully crafts the horror of slavery into a fantastic, albeit disturbing film. He doesn’t simply show us what it was like as a slave, but instead literally puts us in the shoes of Solomon Northup, with scenes shot only featuring the moon in the dead of the night, beautifully representing what seemed like an endless nightmare.
McQueen does an incredible job of portraying the horrific reality of slavery through an original and profound lens, captivating and appalling the audience at the same time.