12 years a Slave is a noteworthy film in many respects: as an intense, gripping exploration of slavery in the antebellum South; as an examination of man’s inhumanity to man, as well as the indomitability of the human spirit, albeit at tremendous cost; and finally, as the film that will bring long-overdue acclaim to the acting powerhouse that is Chiwetel Ejiofor. Directed by Steve McQueen and written by John Ridley, the film is based on Solomon Northrup’s memoir in which he recounted his years as a slave after having lived as a free man in the North.
The film begins with Solomon already a slave, trying to eke out a message in the dead of night; there follows a flashback wherein we see Solomon’s prosperous life in 1841 New York, complete with wife and children, social status…and some unwanted freedom when his wife goes on a trip. This leaves him open to the genial machinations of two white men who convince the talented violin-playing Solomon to accompany them to Washington for a performance. A night of carousing ends with Solomon chained and forced onto a boat bound for New Orleans and the slave trade. Solomon’s pleas for freedom based on his status as a free black man not only fall on deaf ears but earn him contempt and increased lashings. The journey forces Solomon into cramped, squalid quarters with other once-free blacks, and in some cases, their families. Brutal behavior by the white masters is the norm, interference brings forth execution, and Solomon realizes he doesn’t just want to survive—he wants to live. He also is made to understand that if he continues to demonstrate his intelligence and sense of pride—indeed if he goes against the whites’ stereotype of the black as deferential and ignorant—it will only render Solomon as a marked man.
Scene after scene following Solomon’s arrival in New Orleans depict the indignities heaped upon prospective slaves—indignities that show a redeeming humanity to be rarely in view. A venal slave trader (Paul Giammatti) sells his captives regardless of family status, so that children are wrenched from their crying mothers’ arms; Solomon’s first owner, an outwardly sympathetic Benedict Cumberbatch, is at a loss to help the woman because it means endangering his own financial status, and his own dealings with Giammatti. The film also posits the notion that even if a slave were to end up on a plantation with a decent owner, there will still be overseers (embodied by a venomous, cowardly Paul Dano) who will be nothing short of barbaric toward their slaves. One particularly harrowing sequence has Solomon forced to stand for hours under the hot sun, noose around his neck, uneasy with his feet just reaching the ground, as everyone willfully ignores his plight. In this animal kingdom, everyone is prey to savagery or self-interest in order to survive.
The bulk of the movie finds Solomon in conflict with a new master Epps (McQueen muse Michael Fassbender), a driven, drunken, sadistic slave owner with a proud wife at home and a victimized slave Patsey who is the top cotton-picker in the fields and the unwilling pick of the master off the field. Solomon struggles to find the right balance between dealing with the whims of Epps, his critical, vengeful wife, and his own solicitude toward Patsey. However, Solomon’s concern for Patsy won’t extend to helping her end her miserable existence–even though she pleads that it will be the humane thing to do—a choice that will prove to have horrific repercussions.
12 Years a Slave can be painful to watch at times, not only because of the effects of the violence (namely the incessant whippings) and the reactions they provoke in others—but also because of the movie’s complete, unflinching depiction of a dehumanizing system that tainted or scarred all involved. Chiwotel Ejiofor is riveting throughout as a man who struggles to maintain his dignity and sense of humanity; the power isn’t just in the few scenes where he rebels but in the scenes where he is trying to navigate his relationships with his overseers; in a short but telling scene where he is on the verge of escaping and comes across a hanging party; in different conversations with whites (including Brad Pitt) where you see the glimmer of hope in Ejiofor’s eyes. If there is salvation at the end, it has not arrived without huge personal cost, as we see in the end.. Life itself has provided the ultimate coda, as the lessons brought forth by these events still not been entirely absorbed by subsequent generations.
In my desire not to leave you on a somber note, I direct you to Last Vegas, a light-hearted frolic about a bachelor bash in Vegas that might lead you to think is a Hangover for the geriatric set, what with a cast consisting of Michael Douglas, Robert DeNiro, Morgan Freeman, and Kevin Kline, as well as plot developments that were clichéd by the time talkies came around. Yet the movie is actually enjoyable and quite entertaining throughout. Kline is in particularly good form as he amusingly tries to cut loose and embrace a weekend away from his patient wife (Joanna Gleason). Mary Steenburgen is also a welcome sight as a saloon singer who attracts the attention of both DeNiro and Douglas, and in the process reopens some unresolved tensions between the two. While there is some talk of mortality and the injustice of getting old, the main appeal is in watching some old pros go through their paces with charm and a great deal of humor.