As always, potential spoilers ahead!
“When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” – Lupita Nyong’o accepting her Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.
12 Years a Slave is about life without validity. It’s about the brutality and wastefulness of a life in which one cannot dream their own dreams and where the roles that make a life rich, those of parent, lover, and friend, are forcefully divorced from an individual.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives a life that is rich, one crafted from his own ambitions and potential. He makes his living as a carpenter, kisses his two children goodnight, and accompanies them and his wife to purchase fine cloth. He is the toast of social occasions where he entertains attendants with his finely honed skill on the violin.
Early in the film, Solomon is introduced to two men, Hamilton and Brown, who request that he join them in Washington where their business can use his services as a violinist. When introduced, he is referred to as a distinguished gentleman and called Mr. Northup. He has a name and his accomplishments are lauded.
Hamilton and Brown drug Solomon over dinner. Solomon wakes up in a dark cell in chains, no longer dressed in the fine clothing and top hat he wore previously. He is to be sold into slavery. His jailer does not call him by his name, but refers to him only as “boy.” Where he was once Mr. Northup, a fine violinist with a family and a free man, without the papers to prove otherwise, he is now a Georgia runaway. He is just a nigger now.
In the journey that will take him on a ship to Louisiana, where he will be handed off from owner to owner, beginning with Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), not an outwardly cruel man but a slave-owner all the same, and eventually to the barbarous and unrelenting Mr. Epps (Michael Fassbender), the story forces the viewer to witness in detail the gradual stripping away of humanity that was slavery. The film is, at the same time, the story of the struggle of every single person held in bondage to remember against all hope and cruelty that they too are human.
It matters not that Eliza (Adepere Oduye) is a mother of two. In a scene that would be laughable if it weren’t a fact of history, she and others who have travelled with Solomon are placed on display like merchandise by Paul Giamatti’s Theophilus Freeman, who implores prospective buyers to make themselves comfortable and enjoy a cup of tea as they peruse his “goods,” who have all been polished and some displayed in the nude.
As Eliza wails uncontrollably upon learning that she will be separated from her children, Freeman and Mr. Ford continue to carry out their transaction, it never occuring to them that they are robbing this woman of her identity as a mother. On Ford’s estate, she continues to wail, refusing to forget her children.
When Solomon is punished for fighting back against the cruelty of John Tibeats (Paul Dano), the only white character in the film who approaches comic book levels of maliciousness, he is left to dangle from a tree, his feet barely touching the ground but able to breathe minimally. The camera lingers on him in a long shot. In this moment, other slaves take no notice. They wander in the background. For them, this is business as usual. Eliza brings Solomon water as he hangs before scuttling off to avoid punishment herself. She remembers that they are both human.
It’s a scene that will remain with me for quite some time. It’s so simple and conveys a point often missing in slavery narratives in film. Stories of freedom and redemption are plentiful, but rarely do we see that many are left behind. In the brief moment that fellow slaves wander behind a hanging Solomon, we see them.
Their stories do not give us the hope and sense that redemption is always possible that we might crave from a slavery narrative, but 12 Years goes a small way to acknowledge that they were real. Emancipation would come eventually, and some might find their way to freedom one way or another, but slavery’s unheard legacy is those untold millions who only knew bondage and as such never had the capacity to dream of a better life. They never knew their own humanity.
It does not always turn out to be okay for those enslaved and writer John Ridley and director Steve McQueen do not insult the intelligence of the viewer by trying to make us believe so. Yes, slavery is in the past, but in its present it blatantly robbed individuals of a life they could truly call their own and now they are just ghosts in the barbaric machine that built our modern world.
This film is a testament to art’s place in forcing us to confront history. Many have been shocked by the images in this film and many have even found it an eye-opening account of slavery’s brutality. It’s truly profound that even with all the statistics that we read in textbooks and our constant commemorations of the battles fought for emancipation that these images can still shock. Yet they can, because those remembrances and statistics can never truly convey slavery’s horrors because they are just that, numbers and theatrics.
12 Years gives a voice and face to those who suffered. It shows us their sorrow in seeing their dignity dissipate. It shows us their thick and irreparable scars inflicted in beatings that break the spirit. Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o are both superb in being that voice, making the cries of their characters audible across centuries. It’s by no means easy to watch Nyong’o’s Patsy feel her master’s whip against her frail body, but it’s difficult to look away because of how real her pain feels, and the pain of so many Patsy’s was indeed real.
What’s more, that pain is easily forgotten. Even if the effect is temporary, we are reminded of that anguish in this film and that’s necessary. History sometimes has to be put in front of us in all its unsavouriness if we are to understand it. I suspect, however, that for anyone who sees 12 Years, the impact will be more than temporary, both as a film and as a window into history.