12 Years a Slave

PLOT (spoiler alert!!!):

In 1841, Solomon Northup is a free African-American man working as a violinist, who lives with his wife, Anne Hampton, and two children in Saratoga Springs, New York. Two men, Brown and Hamilton, offer him a two-week job as a musician if he will travel to Washington, D.C., with them. Once there, they drug Northup and deliver him to a slave pen owned by James Burch.

Northup is shipped to New Orleans along with others who have been captured. A slave trader named Freeman gives Northup the identity of “Platt”, a runaway slave from Georgia and sells him to plantation owner William Ford. Northup impresses Ford when he engineers a waterway for transporting logs swiftly and cost-effectively across a swamp, and Ford presents him with a violin in gratitude into which he carves the names of his wife and children.

Ford’s carpenter John Tibeats resents Northup and the tensions between them escalate. Tibeats attacks Northup, who defends himself. In retaliation, Tibeats and his friends attempt to lynch Northup, but they are prevented by Ford’s overseer, Chapin, though Northup is left in the noose standing on tiptoe for many hours. Ford finally cuts Northup down, but chooses to sell him to planter Edwin Epps to protect him from Tibeats. Northup attempts to explain that he is actually a free man, but Ford states that he “cannot hear this” and responds “he has a debt to pay” on Northup’s purchase price.

In contrast to the relatively benevolent Ford, Epps is a sadistic man who believes his right to abuse his slaves is biblically sanctioned. The slaves are beaten if they fail to pick at least 200 pounds (91 kg) of cotton every day. A young female slave named Patsey picks over 500 pounds (230 kg) daily, and is praised lavishly by Epps. Epps is attracted to Patsey and repeatedly rapes her, causing Epps’ wife to become jealous and frequently humiliate and degrade Patsey. Patsey’s only comfort is visiting Mistress Shaw, a former slave whose owner fell in love with her and elevated her to Mistress. Patsey wishes to die and begs Northup to kill her but he refuses.

Some time later, an outbreak of cotton worm befalls Epps’ plantation. Unable to work his fields, he leases his slaves to a neighboring plantation for the season. While there, Northup gains the favor of the plantation’s owner, Jurge Turner, who allows him to play the fiddle at a neighbor’s wedding anniversary celebration, and to keep his earnings. When Northup returns to Epps, he attempts to use the money to pay a white field hand and former overseer, Armsby, to mail a letter to Northup’s friends in New York state. Armsby agrees to deliver the letter, and accepts all Northup’s saved money, but betrays him to Epps. Northup is narrowly able to convince Epps that Armsby is lying and avoids punishment. Northup tearfully burns the letter, his only hope of freedom.

Northup begins working on the construction of a gazebo with a Canadian laborer named Bass. Bass is unsettled by the brutal way that Epps treats his slaves and expresses his opposition to slavery, earning Epps’ enmity. One day, Epps becomes enraged after discovering Patsey missing from the plantation. When she returns, she reveals she was gone to get a bar of soap from Mistress Shaw, as a result of being forbidden soap by Mary Epps. Epps does not believe her and orders her flogged. Encouraged by his wife, Epps forces Northup to flog Patsey to avoid doing it himself. Northup reluctantly obeys, but Epps eventually takes the whip away from Northup, savagely lashing Patsey.

Northup purposely destroys his violin, and while continuing to work on the gazebo, Northup confides his kidnapping to Bass. Once again, Northup asks for help in getting a letter to Saratoga Springs. Bass, risking his life, agrees to send it.

One day, Northup is called over by the local sheriff, who arrives in a carriage with another man. The sheriff asks Northup a series of questions to confirm his answers match the facts of his life in New York. Northup recognizes the sheriff’s companion as C. Parker, a shopkeeper he knew in Saratoga. Parker has come to free him, and the two embrace, though an enraged Epps furiously protests the circumstances and tries to prevent him from leaving. Before Northup can board the coach to leave, Patsey cries out to him, and they embrace in a bittersweet farewell. Knowing that they are in potential danger, at the urging of Parker and the sheriff Northup finishes his tearful goodbye with Patsey and immediately leaves the plantation.

After being enslaved for twelve years, Northup is restored to freedom and returned to his family. As he walks into his home, he sees Anne, Alonzo, Margaret and her husband, who present him with his grandson and namesake, Solomon Northup Staunton. Concluding credits recount the inability of Northup and his legal counsel to prosecute Brown, Hamilton and Burch, as well as the publishing of Northup’s 1853 slave narrative memoir Twelve Years a Slave and the mystery surrounding details of his death and burial.

REVIEW:

Many countries have had slavery in their history, but I swear the U.S. has to have had treated their slaves, not to mention anyone who didn’t agree with their way of thinking, the worst. 12 Years a Slave is another in a long line of films about the wrongs of slavery. This one was a critics’ darling, racking up the awards and forever etching itself in the history books, but how good is it, really?

What is this about?

Based on an incredible true story of one man’s fight for survival and freedom. In the pre-Civil War United States, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is abducted and sold into slavery. Facing cruelty (personified by a malevolent slave owner, portrayed by Michael Fassbender), as well as unexpected kindnesses, Solomon struggles not only to stay alive, but to retain his dignity. In the twelfth year of his unforgettable odyssey, Solomon’s chance meeting with a Canadian abolitionist (Brad Pitt) will forever alter his life.

What did I like?

Tragedy. It is never comfortable talking about how inhumane people have been treated throughout history, whether it be the Native Americans losing their land, the Jews being oppressed by the Nazis, or slavery. Now, to make this a more dramatic story, our protagonist needed to be a free man, a successful one by the looks of it, with a wife and kids. He is led to believe that his violin prowess may allow him to earn a couple of extra bucks in Washington, D.C., but it turns out that he has been kidnapped and will become a slave, a practice that was commonplace, sadly. What is the most tragic about this? As it turns out, this is based on a true story!

New stars. One of the reasons we haven’t got that Black Panther movie yet is that there just aren’t enough African-American actors that can bring in audiences and, let’s face it, Will Smith, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, Idris Elba, and to a lesser extent, Djimon Hounsou, aren’t going to be around forever. With 42 and this summer’s Get On Up, we have a new star in Chadwick Bozeman, but I think his talent may be eclipsed by the stars of this film, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o. I always say that films of yesteryear have actors that actually act, while today they just read the lines and collect a paycheck. Well, these two are a throwback, as they put everything have into these roles, and boy was it worth it!

Better than the Americans. As someone who live down here in Louisiana, I’m more than a little qualified to comment on the authenticity of these accents. Something that I noticed in the film is that the actors from other countries, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, as well as Brd Pitt (mainly because he’s been in a ton of movies based in and around New Orleans, most notably Interview with the Vampire and The Curious Life of Benjamin Button), all have better southern accents than the Americans (Fassbender does let his Irish slip out now and then). I just find this amusing.

Sing a song. Watch any documentary about slavery, the south, the Civil War, etc., and you’ll hear Negro spirituals. This makes it a no-brainer that with all the scenes of slaves working out in the field, there needs to be some singing. It is a small thing, but sometimes those little things can make the biggest difference, especially when it comes to historical accuracy.

What didn’t I like?

Balance. I am not sure how much different there is between the film and the book, but I would hope that there is a better balance. As it stands, the film spends more time with the “bad guys” than with those that have a more understanding nature. In other words, more of Cumberbatch’s character and/or the Judge person the slaves were shipped off to, would have been nice, rather than a constant barrage of Fassbender and his wife.

N. The ‘N’ word is perhaps the worst term in the English language. Some have said that it is better to listen to a string of obscenities and gutter talk than to hear one utterance of the ‘n’ word, and I cannot argue with that, to be honest. Here we have a slight controversy. With this film, the ‘N’ word is used for historical purposes, but that is the same reason Quentin Tarrantino gave for his constant use of the word in Django Unchained. What is the difference? I couldn’t really find one, other than the different in the directors’ skin color. I think this film makes better use of the word, however, but still takes it a bit too far. I don’t want to get up on a soapbox about this today, but it should be said that the ‘n’ word doesn’t need to be used everytime a film set in the time of slaves is released. If that’s the case, then we’ll get an R-rated Huckleberry Finn when someone finally decides to make another movie about him, and who wants that, really…especially if the rating is based on language!!!

Token white guy. Mr. All-American himself, Brad Pitt, makes an appearance near the film’s end and “saves the day”. Now, there are two ways to look at his appearance. Before I get into that, though, let it be known that Pitt does his usual job of turning in a fine performance. However, why did Pitt have to play that role? Couldn’t it have been some schlub from the street? Second, apologies if this is in the book, but couldn’t someone else have taken the letter? Perhaps a slave from the Underground Railroad? Period withstanding, it just seems as if they were looking for a white guy to “save the day”. Again, I haven’t read the book, so this point may be moot and I could be way off-base. If so, then I accept that.

Very rarely do I agree with the critics, let alone the Academy, but 12 Years a Slave is one of those films that deserves all the accolades that have been lauded on it and then some. Now, I warn you this is a powerful film that you’re more than likely not going to want to just pop in and watch everyday, but it is a film that needs to be seen. Chances are, students will be watching parts of this in history classes in a few years, much the same way they’ve watched Roots and North and South. Do I recommend this? Yes, very highly. It is definitely one of those films that everyone needs to see before they die!

5 out of 5 stars

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3 Responses to “12 Years a Slave”

  1. […] Do the Right Thing, 42,  Jungle Fever, Malcolm X, Boyz N the Hood, The Butler, The Color Purple, 12 Years a Slave, etc., but I want to go in a lighter, more fun […]

  2. […] school of thought on this. First is, more than likely, this was filmed before she won her Oscar for 12 Years a Slave, so she was still a nobody. In which case, her role suits her. On the other hand, I believe this […]

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