Twelve Years a Slave a Brutal, Moving Film

by Chris Copen12-years-a-slave-poster-405x600

I would like to preface this article with a warning. 12 Years a Slave is a tough movie to stomach. It presents the issue of slavery and racism of 1840’s American slavery in a harsh, authentic light, and leaves nothing to the imagination. This film is rated R, and it uses that rating to fully expose the pain and suffering of slaves.

This is not an action film. It’s slow paced with the “villains” only becoming increasingly more evil as the story progresses. This isn’t the Django Unchained slavery. This is the brutal, unpolished, unapologetic truth.

The movie is based on the autobiography published in 1853 of the same name, written by Solomon Northup. In the book, Solomon goes into intense detail of how he was tricked, kidnapped, and then sold into slavery, where he stayed working plantations for twelve years. The movie follows the book closely, and eventually you see it as a movie not just about the topic of slavery, but also about the modern day issues of racism, and the issues of fitting in and embracing, or in Solomon Northup’s case rejecting, the expectations of your culture.

As a free man, Solomon was well educated, a fantastic writer and quite literate. He was also a majestic fiddler. It was because of his skills with a fiddle that two men approached him and asked him if he would like to join a show they ran, touring the country with a circus. He accepted the lucrative offer, and drank with the two men to celebrate him joining the tour. When he awoke, however, he found himself chained to the floor of a cold cell. He soon discovered that he was about to be sold into slavery

As a slave, Solomon was forced to hide his education, and his real name, from his masters and his peers. Still it was impossible to not see that Solomon was more than he said he was. His first master, Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a fair master, or as fair as a slave owner can be. Solomon builds a canal for Ford that speeds up the time it takes to transport logs. Ford rewards him with a fiddle

The over watcher, however, the man employed by Ford to watch the slaves, does not like Solomon, simply because he isn’t like the other slaves, and Solomon and Ford are too close for his liking. He and another over watcher hatch a plan to murder Solomon, and begin abusing him. Ford learns of their plot and sells Solomon to a nearby plantation for Solomon’s own safety.

The new plantation owner, Edwin Epps, is much different than Ford. He is abusive, and believes firmly that his slaves are his property, something he believes God wants him to have. This is where the pain and suffering really comes clear, but it occasionally is so vulgar, and so detailed that you have to look away.

Epps rapes a young slave, Patsey, who picks over 500 pounds of cotton a day, repeatedly. His wife discovers that Epps is sleeping with Patsey, and physically abuses her multiple times out of jealousy.

A worm infestation leads Epps to believe that God has sent him the “plague”, in the form of the new slaves he has brought onto the plantation, and sends Solomon and others to his neighbor. This new owner asks Solomon to play the fiddle for his wedding reception, and allows him to keep his earnings. When he returns to Epps plantation, Solomon attempts to use this money to get a white field hand to send a letter explaining his situation to his wife and children.

The field hand agrees and takes the money. Soon the field hand betrays Solomon. Solomon is able to convince Epps that the field hand is lying, but must burn the letter to destroy the evidence. As he burns the letter, he realizes his last hope of being saved is being burned along with it.

Epps treatment of his slaves becomes progressively worse, and he forces himself onto Patsey more and more. One day when Patsey can’t be located he becomes enraged, choking many female slaves until they tell him where Patsey is. When she returns she reveals that she was at a neighbors plantation, trying to get a bar of soap so she could be clean. But he refuses to listen.

He forces Solomon to whip her repeatedly, but becomes frustrated and whips her to near death himself. This is the most jarring part of the film, with specks of blood and flesh flying with every crack of the whip. Solomon soon meets, and confides in, a Canadian workman (played by Brad Pitt) who has been hired to work with him on a pavilion. The workman is disgusted by the system of slavery, and risks his life to take a letter Solomon writes to Solomon’s family. Soon, a sheriff and a storekeeper from Solomon’s former town come to rescue Solomon, and take him home. After twelve years, Solomon is a free man again.

I found this movie to be an intense retrospective on slavery in America, and also the director’s opinion of how the world has changed today. I doubt that the director believes the race issue has been fixed in today’s world, and largely I agree with that. The film also casts a light on the issue of fitting in culturally.

In the movie, Solomon is largely an outcast from the other slaves. He can write. He can read. And he is musically gifted. But yet he feels the pressure to conform to their culture. He keeps the fact that he is well educated hidden, something that many people believe many young African-Americans across the country feel pressure to do even today by their peers and their culture.

The tone of this movie was just what you expected from this type of film. The acting specifically that of Chiwetel Ejiofor who played Solomon was a fantastic Academy Award worthy performance if there ever was one. This film has come with a lot of hype, but with a film on such a delicate topic as this, I believe that you must step away from that and look at the movie for what it is. And in this case, it is exactly what you wanted. A true to life, sugarcoated account of one man trying to find his way home from the cruelest of all possible situations.