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12 Years A Slave

12 Years A Slave

It takes courage to stare a painful subject like slavery in
the face. Having tackled films about a notorious hunger strike and a man with a
soul-sucking addiction to sex, director Steve McQueen was clearly the right man
to execute an unflinching adaptation of Solomon Northup’s incredible story.
Likewise, the gifted Chiwetel Ejiofor is a perfect choice to play the confident
Northerner whose freedom and dignity are cruelly stripped away when he is sold
into slavery in the 1840s.

John Ridley’s
screenplay spares us nothing: we are eyewitnesses to one brutal injustice after
another, from the time Northup is duped into traveling to Washington with a
pair of sharpsters to the moment he discovers the horrible truth: he has been
sold down the river and there is no one who can help him. His first master,
played by Benedict Cumberbatch, is a civilized Southerner who appreciates his
new slave’s talents, until a zealous and hateful overseer (Paul Dano) stirs up
trouble. Northup is then sold to a mercurial plantation owner (Michael
Fassbender) who makes his life a living hell and mistreats virtually everyone
around him, from his spiteful wife (Sarah Paulson) to a young and vulnerable
female slave (Lupita Nyong’o). The performances are as vivid as the Southern

There is
nothing we can do to change this terrible chapter in American history. We not
only flinch at the suffering inflicted on these slaves but feel a vicarious
sense of shame. How could anyone be so inhumane…and how could such behavior be
tolerated? The film also poses some provocative questions. Could Northup have
struggled harder to assert his status as a free man? Sadly, the answer is no.
Was it wise for him to allow his masters to know that he was educated and even
refined? This is a trickier matter that the movie deals with head-on.

Watching a
young woman being whipped within an inch of her life or a man forced to hang by
a noose overnight with his toes barely touching the ground is (needless to say)
hard to take. This is usually the stuff of blood-and-thunder melodrama; it’s validated
in this case because the story is true, but that doesn’t make those scenes any
less robust or difficult to watch. I suppose the takeaway is to never lose
hope, as Solomon Northup ultimately survives his ordeal. Had he given up and
yielded to despair he wouldn’t have had a chance of being rescued…yet he is the
only character we meet who attains anything approaching a “happy” ending.

Hatred is
still alive and well in these United States, and it is vital that we never
forget how otherwise intelligent people allowed slavery and its attendant
cruelty to thrive. This is why it’s important for a film like 12 Years a Slave to be seen and


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