Monday, December 23, 2013

12 Years A Slave

"But I don't want to survive. I want to live!"

12 Years A Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, tells the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in pre-Civil War America, who was sold into slavery. In 1841, Northup, a well educated black man was living with his family in Saratoga Springs, New York. Married to Anne Hampton, a free black woman, they had three children, Elizabeth, Margaret and Alonzo Solomon Northup made a living playing his violin at the various hotels in Saratoga Springs in the summer but work was difficult to find in the off season. Anne worked as a cook in the United States Hotel.

In 1841 Solomon was introduced to two men, Merrill Brown and Abram Hamilton who claimed to be entertainers wishing to engage him to play the violin in New York City. While in New York, they persuaded Solomon to travel with them to Washington to attend a circus. Slavery was legal in Washington, so they stopped to obtain a copy of Solomon's "free papers". However once in Washington, they drugged Solomon and sold him to James H. Burch who was a known slave trader. Brown and Hamilton claimed that Northup was a runaway slave from Georgia. Burch beat Northup and shipped him along with other blacks he had kidnapped to the slave market in New Orleans. There he was sold by Burch's partner, Theophilus Freeman to a Baptist preacher, William Ford who had a plantation in Louisiana. Ford had a reputation for treating his slaves well and Northrup wrote years later that he was a kind man.

Solomon with his family in Saratoga Springs.
In 1842, Northup was sold to John Tibaut who was a cruel man. Tibaut was unable to pay the full price for Northup and so owed Ford a debt of $400. When Tibaut tried to whip Northrup, Northup turned on him in self defense and then whipped Tibaut. Tibaut attempted to lynch Northup but was saved by Ford's overseer, Chapin.

Eventually Tibaut sold Northup to Edwin Epps, another cruel slave owner who frequently whipped his slaves if they did not work to his satisfaction. Northup spent ten years in hard labour on Epps' plantation. Epps hired an carpenter by the name of Samuel Bass. Bass was a Canadian who traveled throughout America working odd jobs. He had strong abolistionist views and it was this characteristic that made Northup take the chance and open up to Bass about his true identity. Bass agreed to write letters on Northup's behalf to  friends detailing what happened to him and where he was being held.

Northup meeting slaver Freeman
Finally, in 1853, Solomon Northup was freed by Henry Northup, a lawyer and a member of the Northup family who had once owned Solomon's father, Mintus. Epps was furious to have lost his slave and told Northup that had he known people were coming for him, he would have killed him.

12 Years A Slave follows Solomon Northup from the time he was kidnapped until he was reunited with his family in New York. This is an intensely disturbing movie about the brutal and barbaric slave trade in America prior to the Civil War. Director Steve McQueen who likes to work with actor Michael Fassbender (who plays Edwin Epps) spares his viewers none of the violence that a slave would have experienced in 1841. The whippings, beatings, rape, sexual abuse and unparalleled cruelty that characterized institutionalized slavery are all present in the film. There is no sanitizing of this subject matter and it's hard viewing as it should be 150 years after the demise of slavery. Although this focuses on one man's experience, and he was lucky because Solomon Northup was one of the few actually rescued from slavery, his experiences mirrors those of hundreds of thousands of other black men and women throughout America prior to the Civil War. 12 Years A Slave is a courageous and extraordinary film. It is difficult to comprehend that an entire nation tolerated and practiced institutionalized slavery and even more difficult to understand why part of that nation even sent their sons to die for it.

Solomon Northup is ably played by London actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor who captures the despair, hope and the determination to survive that must have characterized Solomon Northup. Benedict Cumberbatch is the decent William Ford, still a slave owner, but a man trying to maintain some kind of integrity in a social order that views an entire race of people as subhuman. The stunningly beautiful  actress, Lupita Nyong'o plays Patsey, the slave Epps both physically and sexually abused. It's difficult to watch Patsey's suffering and to realize that what she experienced was very very common for beautiful young female slaves.

The movie is based on the Northup's book of the same name which was published the same year he was freed. You can read Northup's book online.

This movie is highly recommended but viewers should be aware of the nature of the subject matter and that there is nudity, violence, and rape.

No comments: