12 Years a Slave

Steve McQueen
Maybe it had to take a British filmmaker to depict clearly the United States' greatest failing: the horrors of centuries of slavery. In 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kinky Boots, Dirty Pretty Things) is a free man living in New York until he's kidnapped and sold in Louisiana as a slave. He's owned by masters relatively kind (Benedict Cumberbatch) and harrowingly brutal (Michael Fassbender), but even under the best conditions, the movie never loses sight of Northup's condition as property, that his well-being and very life are at the whim of his owners. There's no hype here, nor any hemming or hawing; each scene is captured simply but vividly, letting the cruel facts of life in the pre-Civil War era speak for themselves. The movie's power lies in the unsettling details and psychological contortions slavery inflicts on everyone involved, black and white. Performances are fantastic throughout, including supporting work from Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Sarah Paulson, Lupita Nyong'o, Brad Pitt, and particularly Alfre Woodard as a slave who's gained a position of comfort and clings to it with haughty entitlement. But it's Ejiofor who anchors the movie; his mix of intelligence and fundamental decency carries 12 Years a Slave to a moving conclusion. From Steve McQueen, director of Hunger and Shame. --Bret Fetzer

Reviews

Reviewed: 2017-06-11

In his home town of Saratoga, New York, Solomon Northup, a free negro who was a skilled carpenter and violinist, was approached by two circus promoters. They offered him a brief, high-paying job as a musician with their traveling circus. Without informing his wife, who was away at work in a nearby town, he traveled with the strangers to downstate New York and Washington, D.C. Soon after arriving in the capital, he awoke to find himself drugged, bound, and in the cell of a slave pen. When Northup asserted his rights as a free man, he was beaten and warned never again to mention his free life in New York.

Transported by ship to New Orleans, Northup and other enslaved blacks contracted smallpox and one died. In transit, Northup implored a sympathetic sailor to send a letter to his family. The letter arrived safely, but, lacking knowledge of his final destination, Northup's family was unable to effect his rescue.

Northup's first owner was William Prince Ford, who ran a lumber mill on a bayou of the Red River. Northup subsequently had several other owners, less humane than Ford, during his twelve-year bondage. At times, his carpentry and other skills contributed to his being treated relatively well, but he also suffered extreme cruelty. On two occasions, he was attacked by John Tibeats, a white man he was leased to, and defended himself, for which he suffered severe reprisals. After about two years of enslavement, Northup was sold to Edwin Epps, a notoriously cruel cotton planter. Epps held Northup enslaved for 10 years, during which time he assigned the New Yorker to various roles from cotton picker, to hauler to driver, which required Northup to oversee the work of fellow slaves and punish them for undesirable behavior. While on Epps' plantation, Northup became friends with a slave girl named Patsey, whom he writes about briefly in the book.

After being beaten for claiming his free status in Washington, D.C., Northup in the ensuing 12 years did not reveal his true history again to a single person, slave or owner. Finally he confided his story to Samuel Bass, a white carpenter and abolitionist from Canada working at the Epps plantation. Bass, at great risk to himself, sent letters to Northup’s wife and friends in Saratoga. Parker, a white shopkeeper, received one of the letters and sought assistance from Henry B. Northup, a white attorney and politician whose family had held and freed Solomon Northup's father and with whom Solomon had a longtime friendship. Henry contacted New York state officials. As the state had passed a law in 1840 to provide financial resources for the rescue of citizens kidnapped into slavery, the Governor appointed Henry Northup as an agent to travel to Louisiana and work with law enforcement to free Solomon. Once in Louisiana, Henry Northup hired local Avoyelles Parish attorney, John P. Waddill, to assist in securing Solomon Northup's freedom. After a variety of bureaucratic measures and searches were undertaken, the attorney succeeded in locating Solomon and freeing him from the plantation. Northup later filed charges against the men who sold him into slavery but was unsuccessful in his suit. He returned to New York and reunited with his family there.

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