|Lupita Nyong’o stars as “Patsey” in “12 Years a Slave.” (MCT)|
At the start of “12 Years a Slave,” a nonfiction account of his experiences as a slave published in 1853, Solomon Northup expressed pleasure at the burgeoning number of books, newspaper articles and other writings that had started to sprout alongside his own memoir.
“Since my return to liberty, I have not failed to perceive the increasing interest throughout the Northern States, in regard to the subject of Slavery,” Northup wrote. “Works of fiction, professing to portray its features in their more pleasing as well as more repugnant aspects, have been circulated to an extent unprecedented, and, as I understand, have created a fruitful topic of comment and discussion.”
But 160 years later, movies remain reluctant to confront the subject. Aside from the seminal 1977 TV miniseries “Roots,” slavery has been relegated to background and subplots in the vast majority of filmed entertainments set during the early years of American history. “Amistad” took the true story of a savage mutiny aboard a ship transporting African slaves to America and turned it into a courtroom drama in which famous white actors argued about the definition of freedom.
In most Civil War-era movies, black actors are either supporting players, doomed soldiers or victims waiting to be rescued. Quentin Tarantino’s “Django Unchained,” which spared no detail in its depiction of the brutality of slavery, kept its main protagonist on the sidelines for almost half the movie.
And even when the great Gordon Parks (“Shaft”) adapted Northup’s book for an episode of PBS’ “American Playhouse” in 1984, the memoir was condensed into a half hour special suitable for viewing in elementary school classrooms.
One of the most bracing things about “12 Years a Slave” is the head-on approach director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley take to the material. There is no hand-holding, no comforting, no soothing musical score to heighten the sorrow and wring empathetic tears. The movie’s combination of clinical brusqueness and unexpected moments of dark, poetic beauty is unlike anything you’ve seen before.
Solomon (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free man in Saratoga, New York, in 1841 with a wife and two children. He made a comfortable living as a musician. And then, over the course of a single night of too much wine, he wakes up in a dark, dank room, shackled and terrified and alone. “You ain’t a free man,” one of his captors tells him. “You’re a Georgia runaway.”
For the next 12 torturous years, Solomon will be stripped of his identity (Paul Giamatti plays a slave trader who renames him Platt), his dignity and, of course, his freedom. The film recounts Solomon’s experiences as he’s sold off like prized livestock to various plantation owners. None is more vicious or cruel than Epps (Michael Fassbender), a cotton farmer with a wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), whose hateful stare reveals her sadism and disdain.
But one of the great things about “12 Years a Slave” is that the movie refuses to paint any of its characters in broad strokes: Rendering Epps and Mary as simply evil would undercut the film’s tremendous power. McQueen doesn’t want to make us suffer, because that’s easy to shrug off and leave behind at the theater. Instead, he wants to make us see and feel and try to understand.
“I had the idea of a free man who was kidnapped and brought into slavery,” the director says. “My wife (cultural critic Bianca Stigter) suggested Solomon’s book. I had never even heard of it. It was amazing ― a biography of America, a first-hand account of what was going on then. It practically read like a script. And I liked the way the book explored slavery as an economic system. I didn’t want to portray slavery in black and white. It was immensely more complicated than that. Lines were blurred. It wasn’t as straightforward as we tend to think about it.”
Solomon’s refusal to give up hope ― unlike some of his fellow slaves ― anchors the film in a deep humanity. “I don’t want to survive,” he says. “I want to live.” Although the audience knows Solomon will live long enough to be freed and reunited with his family, he believes he could be killed at any moment for the slightest transgression. Early in the film, when he rises up against a farmhand (Paul Dano) who torments him one time too many, the moment is incredibly cathartic ― finally, a chance to fight back ― but it also fills you with dread, because you know Solomon will be gravely punished for what he has done.
“The slaves knew what would happen to them if they rebelled, but sometimes they couldn’t help themselves,” McQueen says. “There was a huge slave revolt in Louisiana in 1811, before Solomon got there. They took arms against their plantation owner and killed his son. Eventually, more than 100 slaves were killed. They were caught and tortured and decapitated. Every head was put on a pole and placed outside each of the slave shacks as a kind of warning. The constant threat of fear and reprisal was a part of their everyday lives.”
That emotional head space was something that took awhile for Ejiofor to inhabit, because the extremity of it has no counterpart in his everyday life.
By Rene Rodriguez
(The Miami Herald)
(MCT Information Services)