Solomon Northup was a freeborn, educated, prosperous African American from Saratoga Springs, New York. Known for his violin playing, he had a wife, a successful cook named Anne, and three children, Elizabeth, Margaret, and Alonzo. In 1841, Northup was kidnapped by two white men claiming to be entertainers and sold into slavery, which was still legal in parts of the country, most notably in the south, where the demand for slaves was high. Under the enforced name of Platt, he would spend the next twelve years in New Orleans under the ownership of three masters, enduring, as all slaves did, the harshest treatments. Upon regaining his freedom in 1853, returning to New York, and unsuccessfully suing the slave traders that sold him in Washington, D.C., Northup became an active member of the abolitionist movement, participated in the Underground Railroad, and would write a memoir about his ordeal.
Director Steve McQueen and screenwriter John Ridley have dramatized Northup’s memoir for the film 12 Years a Slave, unquestionably among the best films of the year. Apart from being one of the most uncompromising recent depictions of the sheer inhumanity of slavery, it’s also a deeply thought-provoking examination of the compromises we’re forced to make under extreme conditions. Northup, played with Oscar-worthy conviction by Chiwetel Ejiofor, tells himself at an early point during his capture that he doesn’t merely want to survive, he wants to live; as the years pass and his hardships mount, it becomes increasingly apparent that someone in his position can’t afford the luxury of personal integrity. The only way the slaves know how to cope with their situation is to keep their heads down and not make a fuss – not even when they’re beaten.
Consider a haunting sequence in which Northup is lynched after getting into a fight with the cruel white carpenter John Tebeats (Paul Dano); a long, uninterrupted shot shows Northup hanging from a tree limb, his feet barely touching the ground, while the other slaves on the plantation exit their shacks, go about their tasks, and ignore him completely. When the shot finally does cut away, we see a group of slave children directly behind him, playing and laughing amongst themselves. Only one slave, a young woman, comes up to Northup with a mug of water and gives him a few sips. But she doesn’t dare attempt to untie the knots or cut him loose. When he finally is rescued by his master, we can clearly see that several hours have passed – the sun is now on the horizon, casting a golden glow over the field.
Also consider the one scene Northup shares with a woman named Harriet Shaw (Alfre Woodard); formerly a slave, she was handpicked by her master to become his mistress, and it was a role she was more than willing to accept. Although she remains fully subservient to a white man, who clearly exempts himself from the ideals upheld by a large portion of his race, it has afforded her a life free from backbreaking labor and physical torture. She can sit at a table on a terrace, sipping tea while servants attend to her every need. For her, this isn’t about the overarching atrocities of slavery. It’s about nothing more or less than sparing herself. Don’t be so quick to judge her. None of us lived during that period of history. Given what we know today about slavery, which puts us at a safe distance, who’s to say who amongst us wouldn’t have done the exact same thing?
Northup’s first master was Baptist minister William Ford, played in the film by Benedict Cumberbatch. Here’s a textbook case of kindness being entirely relative to circumstance; although the real Northup described Ford as a good man who was considerate of his slaves, he was, nevertheless, a man who bought and sold human beings treated as nothing more than property. Real cruelty is exhibited by Northup’s next master, the drunken Edwin Epps, played in the film by regular McQueen collaborator Michael Fassbender. Even then, we don’t know if Epps or his wife, Mary (Sarah Paulson), is the crueler of the two. Mary is perfectly aware that her husband uses one of his slaves, a young woman named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), to satisfy his sexual desires; although Mary verbally berates Epps at every opportunity, she takes all her physical frustrations out on Patsey, sometimes in rather shocking ways.
McQueen shows us the horrors of slavery with disturbing vividness, which is exactly the right approach to the material. When Patsey has her back whipped by Epps, for example, it’s not simply a matter of hearing cracks and anguished screams; we actually see the wounds as they form, exposing the raw muscle underneath her skin. What makes the scene even more horrific is that, initially, Northup is forced into being the one that whips Patsey. It’s debatable just how much hope, if any, Northup had left at this point. Even when he befriends a Canadian carpenter and outspoken abolitionist named Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), who would have a major part to play in setting Northup free, it results in a bittersweet victory, for him and for the audience. There were, after all, countless others left behind in bondage. 12 Years a Slave is not the story of an idealized hero. It’s the story of a man who was thrust into a situation he had no control over, had no choice but to adapt, and was ultimately lucky enough to escape from it.