Born as a free man, kidnapped and sold a slave
Two days ago I had the privilege to watch the movie 12 years a slave during a private screening in a movie club here. Officially this movie will open in February in The Netherlands. I am deeply impressed by this movie and here is my review.
12 years a slave is based on an autobiography with the same title written by Solomon Northup. Northup (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) was born as a free man in New York. He is a violin player, lives a quiet life with his wife and two children at Saratoga Springs in New York. In 1841 two men offer him a job as a violinist in a travelling circus. They travel together to Washington. The following morning after their last dinner Northup wakes up in a cell, with his arms and feet chained. He is drugged by his companions and sold as a slave.
At this point Northup must let go of his old life. He is given a new name, Platt. He is then shipped to Louisiana by a steamboat. There a fellow slave warns him to lay low when Platt tells him about his life as a skilled free man:
Tell no one who you are and tell no one you can read or write unless you want to be a dead nigger.
The story goes on, Platt is sold to William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) in New Orleans. After a while he is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a rude, heartless man who treats his slaves as his property not as human.
With a help of Bass, a Canadian who rejects slavery, Platt is free after twelve years. At the end he gains his old life back as Solomon Northup.
This movie rawly depicts how cruel, human degrading, shocking and brutal slavery was. Some disturbing scenes have lingered on in my head afterwards: how the slaves are inspected by interested buyers, two slaves are hung in the woods, Platt being hung on a tree the whole day long while other slaves carry on with their activities as if they don’t see him, Patsey (a female slave) gets her punishment; lashes on her back until she is severely wounded.
Unlike other films about slavery like Jango Unchained and Amistad, 12 years a slave is very confronting in another way. I mean the director, Steve McQueen, takes the viewers into the daily life on the plantation.
We see that Epps takes Patsey to release his sexual lust. Patsey visits a former female slave who becomes a lady of the house because she lives together with her master. The slaves hum a tune during their work harvesting the cotton under the hot sun.
The images are also beautiful. The camera captures the idyllic landscapes, pretty sunlight through the trees in the jungle, the humid swamps and rivers. This supports the feel of the story.
It will be no surprise if Chiwetel Ejiofor and Michael Fassbender would be nominated for Oscar for their role. Chiwetel comes in every scene. His performance is impeccable. I got goose bumps when I saw the scene where Platt/Northup says this
I will survive. I will not fall into despair! I will keep myself hardy till freedom is opportune.
That man says this so convincingly, word by word, I had to hold my breath!
Playing this role Ejiofor took lessons from an accent coach as he is British with Nigerian descent. Another point for The Academy to reckon with his possible nomination.
Fassbender’s portrayal of Epps is superb. The look on his face is terrfiying. It is cold, degrading, hateful, heartless and mean. This is also worth an Oscar nomination.
Other cast performance is also excellent. Pay attention to Lupita Nyong’o (Patsey) and Adepeyo Odure (Eliza). Brad Pitt plays Bass well in only 3 scenes.
I find the music score also beautiful in a way that I am able to imagine how negro spirituals came to life. The slaves hum during their work. They sing with their voice and clap their hands for the rhythm in Sunday church services. They sing their spirit and longing for freedom but yet acceptation of their fate. I can feel this really good by listening to “Roll Jordan Roll” (available in the video below). The ripe woman’s voice starts and followed by the choir. It intensifies as Platt’s voice comes in. This song is from a scene almost at the end of the movie. When the camera focuses on Platt’s face I can see and feel his anger clearly.
12 years a slave is a story told first hand by a slave. It is an impressive and epic movie. This film earns a 10!