MOTW: Unflinching Portrayal Gives "12 Years As a Slave" an Edge

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In the antebellum United States, Solomon Northup, a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery.
Photo Credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures
February 24th, 2014

Critics widely regard the 2013 film "12 Years As a Slave" as a work of art that transcends art by showing humanity how it appears at its worst. By portraying pre-Civil War slavery in the United States in all its horror and cruelty, the film leaves few who watch it, particularly Americans, unchanged.  

The movie is based on the 1853 memoir of the same title by Solomon Northup, a once-free black man who lived in upstate New York before being abducted and sold into slavery in the antebellum South. The storyline of the film follows Northup as he struggles to stay alive as well as to maintain his dignity as a human being.

Directed by Great Britain's Steve McQueen, "12 Years As a Slave" stars Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup. Screenwriter John Ridley adapted Northup's narrative for the film, which is best described in terms of genre as a historical drama. 

The film begins with Northup enslaved but soon turns to flashbacks in which he travels with his wife and children to Washington D.C., where he is kidnapped and, once he awakens in chains, is told he is no longer a free man. After being hauled throughout the South, he ends up in New Orleans, where the reality of his situation finally sinks in. At this point, Northup writes that he feels cut off from liberty. 

Northup stays at several plantations, some worse than others. He is shown the worst of the American slave trade at the Epps plantation, where owner Edwin Epps lords his power over all, reveling in the terror he instills in the hearts of slaves. The beauty of the Louisiana landscape serves in sharp contrast to the ugliness of the actions of Epps and those like him. 

While his captors regard him as little more than an animal, Northup, as depicted by Ejiofor, is undeniably full of human intelligence and emotion. Throughout his travails, and despite his understandable despair, he never gives up hope. At one point, he tells a broken-hearted slave woman whose children have been sold to a different owner that he endeavors to remain hearty until an opportunity to reclaim his freedom arises. 

All the film's actors who portray slaves outdo themselves in giving slavery human form. Lupita Nyong, who plays Patsey, is particularly poignant, her character beaten mercilessly, raped by her owner and loathed by his wife. Throughout it all, she remains somehow truculent. In the same way, actors Sarah Paulson and Michael Fassbender, who play slave owners, depict the worst of which humanity is capable. 

Brad Pitt, who is a producer of the film, plays a carpenter who maintains his morality despite the depravity around him. Pitt told reporters that having participated in "12 Years As a Slave," he could never be involved in making another movie again and could still be satisfied with his career. Freedom and dignity, he added, mean everything, and the movie shows how important it is that every human being enjoys both. 

McQueen notes that there are still 21 million people in slavery throughout the world today. His hope is that "12 Years As a Slave" shines light on the ongoing problem and helps turn the tide so that there is no need to make a similar film after the next 150 years. Ultimately, "12 Years As a Slave" reminds viewers of how powerful truth is and how vital it is to tell it no matter how difficult.  

After winning the British Academy Film Awards best film trophy for the film, McQueen said that it was his partner who discovered Northup's memoir and shared it with him. As he read the pages, he knew the world must know the story of this man who endured what most would consider unendurable, and he never forgot Northup. With the film, said McQueen, no one else would either.

The unflinching writing, direction and acting in "12 Years As a Slave" serves to expose what is generally considered the ugliest period in American history in a way it has never been seen. Some believe this is because McQueen and a number of the actors are British. Others say it is because the film is based on the writings of a person who endured the cruelty and horror first-hand. 

In the end, the film is both a cinematic masterpiece and a crucial tool with which to examine U.S. history. It is also a reminder of how quickly human beings, no matter where they come from, can degenerate if left unchecked by those who know wrong when they see it.