I think one of the elements required for creating a great drama is to craft a protagonist who perseveres despite the odds. It requires a character who is a fighter. They can face setbacks, sure, and they can have their moments to grieve or reflect, but I believe moviegoers are more likely to root for a fighter instead of a character who gets stuck or falls into despair.
They want to follow the journey of someone who comes out on top so the viewing experience was well worth the journey. And that’s what director Steve McQueen managed to pull off with 12 Years a Slave.
Based off of the 1853 memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup and the years he spent as a slave after being kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. Given how this is based off of an already published novel, in addition to its title, we know that the protagonist won’t be in bondage forever and that the story most likely will end with his freedom.
However, the film isn’t about the resolution or leading you along until the main character finds freedom. It’s about Northup’s journey that ends up providing him with the satisfying payoff that so many others like him had been denied or never experienced at all.
12 Years a Slave has already topped a lot of critics’ lists for best films of 2013. It’s received much critical praise for the performances and story. It’s been called everything from “a film that needed to be made” to “one of the greatest films of all time.” It’s been compared to Schindler’s List in the way this film depicts slavery with the same stark filmmaking exhibited during List. I try to avoid buzz words when it comes to visual mediums and just say what’s on my mind, not get in line and parrot what’s popular. That said, I will say that 12Years a Slave, like The Butler, is a well dome drama centered on a man’s journey during a particularly tumultuous period in America’s history.
A period, not the period.
The film uses a nonlinear approach to storytelling, as we actually begin during Northup’s time as a slave. It’s all setup for what’s to come and it’s not until we get up and close with our protagonist that the film flashes back to 1841. We’re then properly introduced to our main character, Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who lives as a free man in Saratoga Springs, New York with his wife and two children. He works as a carpenter and fiddle player, but more importantly, Northup is well known and respected in the community.
One day, Hamilton is introduced to two men: Brown, played by Scoot McNairy, and Hamilton, played by Taran Killam. Brown and Hamilton are travelers who regale Northup with stories of their band, filled with African exhibitions. How exotic. What they need is a good musician and they offer good money. How could Northup turn this down? They toast as Northup enjoys more wine. And then more wine. Soon enough, he’s getting rid of it in the alley, but as Northup is put to sleep in bed, Brown and Hamilton, through their utmost generosity, promise that when Northup awakens, he will feel as well and refreshed, as if the Earth were new again.
Northup does indeed feel as if the Earth were new. In fact, chances are he never felt closer to the ground, as he awakens in shackles. Two men enter the dingy room and Northup tries to explain his situation, but he’s unable to produce his free papers when asked. Always carry your free papers. Anyway, Northup is no longer Northup. He’s just a runaway slave from Georgia, and he’s beaten repeatedly with a paddle in order to be forced to submit.
Like that, Northup’s life is turned upside down and he finds himself among other Negroes in bondage and in a potential lifelong life of servitude. When placed on a boat, he discusses his situation with two other men: Clemens Ray, played by Chris Chalk, and Robert, played by Michael K. Williams. Right from the start, we see that these aren’t ignorant Negroes. They know what lies ahead, so the key is to do and say as little as possible. Don’t mention that you can read and write. Living is much better than surviving.
After the ship docks, Clemens receives the best news of the day when his owner arrives to pick him up from being sold. Northup isn’t so lucky. In fact, he’s so unlucky that he doesn’t even get to keep his name, as he finds when a slave trader named Theophilus Freeman, played by Paul Giamatti, calls him by his new name: Platt, the identity of a runaway slave from Georgia.
Northup is shipped to New Orleans and sold to plantation owner William Ford, played by Sherlock himself, Benedict Cumberbatch. Ford is what we would call one of the good, benevolent whites. He’s sympathetic to the plight of a woman named Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, who doesn’t want to be separated from her children, even though Freeman is unwilling to part with them all, as his sentimentality extends the length of a coin.
On this plantation, Northup shows his knowledge on canals by helping engineer a waterway to transport logs downstream. In return, Ford presents Northup with a violin for his personal use.
Unfortunately, Northup has drawn the ire of carpenter John Tibeats, played by Paul Dano, who entertains the slaves with the timeless hit: “Run, Nigger, Run.” While Ford is kind, Tibeats is cruel and harsh, proving this when he ruins part of the foundation of a shed Northup had been working on. To Tibeats’ surprise, Northup doesn’t falter. He received his instruction. If something went wrong, it was because of the instructions.
That’ll earn you some lashes. Well, it should have, but when Tibeats pulls off his whip, Northup fights back and turns the whip back on Tibeats. Tibeats retreats for the moment.
Between this, Northup speaks with Eliza, whose been crying ever since she arrived at the plantation. She’s still wrecked not just by losing her children, but for being there in the first place. She bore her daughter by her first master and had been brought to this location under the pretense that her free papers had been executed. She pleads that Northup just let her weep and calls him out on playing up to the master, but Northup is here to survive. He will not fall into despair. He will offer up his talents and so on and so forth; you know how the rest of the line goes. It’s been played everywhere and if I could ever pin point a single scene that spelled “Oscar Nominated Line,” it would be this one.
Anyway, Tibeats gets his opportunity when he and some friends try to lynch Northup. They’re driven away by the plantation foreman, but the foreman does not cut Tibeats down. He leaves him to hang all day, just low enough for him to move around without suffocating. Night arrives and Ford eventually arrives to cut Northup down. When Northup awakens, he is in Ford’s home, where Ford explains that Tibeats still wants him dead. In order to protect Northup’s life, he must sell him to another plantation owner. Northup tries to explain who he is, that he’s a free man with an established identity. Given Ford’s kindness, he expects that Ford will help him, but Ford tells Northup that he cannot hear any of what he’s being told. He won’t hear of any talk of freedom. He has a debt to pay.
The film then cuts to the new plantation owner of the hour: Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender. In his introduction, Epps preaches to his slaves the importance of servitude. Epps is protected by the Almighty and given biblical authority to whip his slaves into submission. After all, God put the White man to have dominion over all the other dusky races. It says so in the Bible, right? And to prove his dominion, Epps requires each of his slaves pick at least 200 pounds of cotton per day or be beaten.
But Northup’s hard knock life doesn’t just end with Epps. Enter Epps’ wife, Mary, who’s given a vicious performance by Sarah Paulson. Mary, just a smidge above a slave’s status, is jealous of Epps’ attention toward one particular female slave: Patsey, played by Lupita Nyong’o. She takes any and every chance she can to physically and verbally abuse all of the slaves, but Patsey in particular. Patsey is the black apple of Epps’ eye, and probably the black eye by way of Mary’s fist, but Epps has had his way with Patsey before and, if given the choice between her and his wife, he would choose Patsey.
Sounds like Northup is in so-so hands.
There’s a lot that I enjoyed about 12 Years a Slave. The film is well paced and allows the audience to absorb both the scenery and dialogue as we move from location to location. Though the film is told, for the most part, in a linear fashion, we’re treated to various flashbacks that show Northup’s life as a free man with his family and these are the moments where the audience is meant to feel Northup’s loss. There’s no introduction or trigger for the flashbacks; they just happen on occasion, but they never felt distracting to me. They show the huge contrast between Northup’s free and slave life. In New York, he and his family could walk into a store and receive respect from a white owner, as well as wonder from the looks of nearby slaves who find the sight of a free Black family a rarity, a rarity that they themselves may never experience for themselves.
This particular flashback is played against the auction scene in which Ford purchases Northup. In the past, Northup and his family could walk where they pleased without fear of reprisal or scorn. When Northup has his name taken from him, he’s put on display alongside other Blacks who are made to jump, play music- louder to drown out the sound of sobbing slaves- and have their bodies examined like skeletons. It also doesn’t help that the slaves are given the highest form of encouragement when Freeman tells their soon-to-be owners that they will grow into fine beasts. The juxtaposition of flashbacks against Northup’s time as a slave never felt forced to me. The flashbacks are short enough for the audience to get the gist of them: Northup is in a dire situation, but the memories of his family push him to continue his struggle to attain freedom.
In addition, the flashbacks help flesh out Northup’s character arc and provide more background into who he is before he wound up in slavery. He has clear motive to get out of his situation and is demonstrated to have both the survival instinct and intellect to prove formidable to Whites. He’s told by Clemens that living is better than surviving, which is true, but Northup letting on how smart he is when it comes to canals is what earns him Ford’s good graces. Northup would have probably survived on Ford’s plantation for some time, but I’d be hard pressed to think he could escape. Though Ford was respectful and cordial, he wouldn’t hear of Northup’s talk of recently being a free man. He may have been able to make Northup feel as comfortable as possible, but a little bit of comfort does not equate to liberty.
I see Northup’s time on Ford’s plantation as a testing ground for how he would fare on the Epps’ plantation, as both Edwin and Mary challenge Northup at different times not just to see if he’s smarter than he lets on, but just as a reminder that he should not step out of line. He could get away with that on Ford’s plantation, yet the Epps come off as crueler, but this is something I’ll touch upon later.
Much like The Butler, 12 Years’ cinematography places you smack dab in the time period and at times, looks very authentic. It doesn’t look like it was shot on a set, but used actual location shooting. The hymns sung by the slaves evoke the Negro spirituals of old. There are times when the film looks a bit too neat and not really all that gritty, but it’s nothing that I lost sleep over.
I’m approaching this film more on what I feel certain characters represent, as opposed to just their performance.
Eliza and Patsey symbolize one of the worst parts about being a slave: being the endless object of a master’s affection while having your pride, family and livelihood stripped away. Eliza is the mother who now has to wake up each morning and know that she’ll probably never see her children again after being promised freedom. She grieves because it’s the best outlet for her to vent any frustration or anger at the world. When she practically begs Northup to let her grieve, she feels entitled to be upset over losing what was once hers.
Patsey, however, has it even worse since she suffers under the hands of both Edwin and Mary. She’s as much the object of the master’s desire as she is the mistress’ ire. For Patsy, there is no way out and her situation is made worse by the fact that she consistently picks more cotton than everyone else on the plantation. She’s as much useful as a slave as she is a vessel for Edwin.
And aside from wanting to take her own life, Patsey isn’t given a lot of options. There’s a scene where Patsey drinks tea with Mistress Harriet Shaw, played by Alfre Woodard, who has made the best of her situation, now married and living a calm life. Through endurance, Harriet has worked her way up to a position of authority where she can give orders to slaves. We aren’t told much about Harriet’s life to judge whether everything in her life is as fine as she makes it out to be. But then, the scene is meant to give Patsey some encouragement about her situation. Though for me, it is a shame that you get a powerhouse performer like Alfre Woodard and only have her in one scene, but that’s beside the point.
The problem is that Edwin is far too cruel a slave owner that Patsey really can’t get encouraged about anything. Even when she slips away to get a bar of soap, it’s as if Patsey is meant to be tethered to Edwin so he can always reel her back in. Lupita Nyong’o’s performance is very strong in certain scenes, such as when she begs Solomon to end her life because she sees no comfort in living and just wants mercy. She claims that God will forgive merciful acts, showing just how far she’s descended into hopelessness.
This hopelessness is compounded even further when Patsey is subjected to abuse by Mary. Consider, at this point in history and even after Reconstruction, a woman was just a few steps above a slave on the social ladder. It’s said that women weren’t a fan of the 15th Amendment because it granted suffrage to former slaves, but not women. Mary is representative of women neglected by their husbands who saw favor with their slaves. For Mary to watch Edwin show affection toward someone deemed inferior, it angers her. She claims that slaves are foul with hate and will eventually revolt against their masters. But then she also berates Edwin’s manhood, calling him a eunuch. Since she can’t physically overpower Edwin, she takes out that anger on the slaves because, again, she needs an appropriate outlet to vent her frustration about being neglected.
It’s scary how good of a job Sarah Paulson did in this role. The looks in her eyes is just the epitome an icy disregard for the slaves and Patsey in particular. I know some have said they left this film disliking Fassbender’s character, but I absolutely hated Mary by the end of the film- a testament to just how strong of a performance Paulson gave for this role.
That’s not to say Michael Fassbender doesn’t deliver a strong performance. On the contrary, he can be downright scary to watch at times. As a villain, Epps walks and speaks with great confidence as he exerts power and control over the slaves. Heck, there’s a sequence where he wakes up the slaves in the middle of the night to have them dance, and that’s him in a good mood. When he interrogates or questions a slave, he can be up in your face cruel or very quiet with rage building under the surface. I wondered at times what would send him over the edge and cause him to start attacking his slaves. Turns out it didn’t take much.
I do wish we had more chances to get inside his head. I appreciate the film letting Epps use the Bible as his justification for slavery, as it paints him as a character who believes it’s his moral duty to be superior over the duskier races. Given how actual masters used religion to defend their pro-slavery stance, it wouldn’t have been too far off for Epps to use similar reasoning, as if he was hand-picked by God to have dominion over these particular slaves. His alcoholism certainly doesn’t make him any friendlier to his slaves.
It also doesn’t help his relationship with his wife. I get the feeling that Edwin and Mary have been married for a long time, but he just grew bored. He seems to still care for Mary, sure, so long as she’s at arm’s length so he can focus his attention on Patsey. Some more scenes with just Edwin and Mary would have been nice so we could learn more about them as a couple, but as is, what we’re given is fine for the purpose of the film. After all, they’re just part of the story.
This is Solomon’s story and Chiwetel Ejiofor’s facial expressions alone make him a great choice to play this role. When watching this film, seeing Solomon’s surprise when first imprisoned, the loss of hope when double-crossed, the imminent fear when he faces potential death all show Ejiofor’s range as an actor and he did an excellent job in this role. I never got tired of watching him.
Despite being enslaved, being taken away from his home and family, and never fully knowing who he can trust, Solomon has the will to live and enough intellect to survive. His motivation is to be reunited his family, which is demonstrated through the film’s flashbacks that show Solomon as a happy man compared to now living in servitude.
It’s good that Solomon did make an effort to bond with the other slaves wherever he went. As a free man who experienced liberty in ways that the slaves can only dream of, it’d be easy for him to seclude himself off because he’d consider himself above them. But no, Solomon connects with the slaves because they now share the same plight. He goes from sleeping in his own home to having to bathe nude in the open alongside other slaves. Such experiences, I think, would humble a person to another’s plight, and I do believe that Solomon realizes what slavery is in its raw form, now that he’s been subjected to it.
Another factor that makes me like Solomon as a character is that he’s proactive. As mentioned, if he had stayed on William Ford’s plantation, he may have been treated fair by Ford, but he wouldn’t have escaped. Now every scene doesn’t consist of Solomon trying to run away. That would be too repetitive and, given how Solomon has no idea how to even get back; it’s guaranteed that he would get lost. But at least he doesn’t just sit around and lament his situation. There’s a moment where Solomon confides in a
man who claims to be former overseer, but abused his authority. Solomon tells the man about his situation and that the man could possibly deliver a letter to be sent to his family.
Next thing we know, Edwin comes to Solomon in the middle of the night to let him know that he’s learned that there may be a devil among his slaves. When confronted, Solomon denies it, claiming that he doesn’t know how to write and has no one to write to. He then turns the situation, saying that if Edwin’s slaves ran free, the so-called white confidant could be promoted back to overseer and a position of authority. It’s a tense scene, but indicative of Solomon’s ability to find a solution to his problems, even though that means burning the letter he could have mailed if he hadn’t been betrayed.
Before wrapping up, I do have a qualm with one character. The one I wasn’t entirely sold on was the Canadian carpenter, Samuel Bass, played by Brad Pitt. He shows up near the end of the film to be the moral reason and question why Edwin would only be concerned with his well-being when he and Solomon are working on the same assignment. He sees no justice in slavery and believes it has turned the United States into an ill nation. So Bass is saying everything the audience has been thinking this entire time, but he’s not going to just change Edwin’s mind like that. There’s no real introduction, as we don’t see him when Solomon first comes to Edwin’s plantation. He’s just there in a later scene. Sure, he helps Solomon out in a big way, but other than that, the character just felt shoehorned into the film in order to have a White person with a conscience exist on Edwin’s plantation.
12 Years a Slave is a gripping film about an ugly period in America’s history. The strength comes from the great performances across the board and from being a well done drama that, while not having many surprises, does give you a protagonist who continues to fight his way to freedom to savor that feeling of independence that so many of him would never know.