“12 Years A Slave”
If you’re one of those who say, “I just go to the movies to be entertained,” this one is not for you. It’s heart-rending, dreary, mirthless, loveless, and excruciating to watch. And yet it might be even more important than the classic “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in understanding slavery in America in the 19th century, because that account was fictional, and this one is not.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man from upstate New York , a fiddle player in a local band, who lived in a nice home, had a beautiful wife and a young son and daughter, and enjoyed a local society that intermingled with seemingly no problem. This was the 1840’s, when the slavery debate had not yet reached a fever pitch in American society, because the “frontier territories” had not yet applied for Statehood.
The slavery laws applied on a State-by-State basis, and in the State of New York , Solomon Northup could live like a free man.
But when Solomon’s wife and children went to visit relatives, Solomon decided to take a musician’s job with a traveling show, to earn some extra money, and signed on with a couple of nice recruiters who took him to Washington, D.C., supposedly to meet up with the rest of the band. But instead, they sold him to an unscrupulous entrepreneur who knocked him unconscious and put him in chains and kidnapped him and in turn sold him to a plantation owner in Georgia . Nobody listened to him about the mistaken identity. Nobody cared. When he complained or explained, he was beaten and whipped. So he soon learned to hold his peace and wait for an opportune time to make his escape, and in the meantime he had to learn the fine line of being a dutiful slave, but not being too smart for his own good. You see, slaves were not allowed to read and write, or to receive an education. A slave could possibly rise to foreman if he could be cruel to his fellow slaves, or he could become a construction worker rather than a field hand by demonstrating a certain aptitude, but he could still always be struck or beaten or whipped for insubordination, or “acting uppity.”
Director Steve McQueen, who is himself black, and also British, chronicles the American slave community in such a way that takes seriously the accommodations that had to be made in the context of such unimaginable cruelty. Yes, at times there were illicit romances (slaves were not permitted to live as families; any children produced by a slave were themselves property of the master). And yes, at times there was singing among the field laborers, just to make the load a little more bearable. And yes, there was sexual exploitation of the young (black) female slaves by their (white) masters---and there was neither redress nor reprieve nor remedy from the law. It was a horrible circumstance, a horrific blot on the American soul, but the Emancipation Proclamation would not be issued by Abraham Lincoln for another 20 years, in the midst of a bloody civil war. In the meantime, there was only suffering and deprivation and yes, a sobering demonstration of utter depravity.
If you’re not depressed before you see this movie, you will be afterwards. You cannot sit through this and be unaffected by what you see on the screen. That makes it one of the best-made films that people will avoid in droves.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving , Texas