12 YEARS A SLAVE Movie Review
By Victoria Alexander
Las Vegas Informer
Brilliant yet brutal without playing on our guilt. Straightforward horror with an astonishing cast. It is director Steve McQueen’s masterwork.
This past summer I spent several weeks in Togo and Benin in West Africa. Benin was an infamous slavery outpost.* During my Mali, West Africa trip, we were told that the Turaeg still keep slaves and everyone knows it.
The great civilizations were all built by slaves, even the great pyramids of Egypt – regardless of the popular propaganda of the now-disgraced former Minister of State for Antiquities Affairs, Zahi Hawass. Did Egyptian farmers really lug those huge tons of stone on their time off from their fields?**
The Islamic World was a main factor in slavery. After the Muslin conquests of North Africa and most of the Iberian peninsula, the Islamic world became a huge importer of Saqaliba (Slavic) slaves from central and eastern Europe. The etymology of the word slave comes from this period, the word sklabos meaning Slav.
Slavery is still commonplace today with countries such as India having the most slaves, with an estimated nearly 14 million.***
It is America’s role in slavery that is our shame since the Declaration of Independence’s second sentence is: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Slavery transformed America into an economic power. It was a crime in the south to teach the enslaved to read or write. The cruelties and sadism of slavery are dispassionately shown in “12 YEARS A SLAVE.” After all, it was what rich plantation owners did every day. This is the film’s triumph.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is an educated freeman in Saratoga, New York and a husband and father. Being a violinist, he is offered a job by two white men in Washington, D.C. Drugging him; he wakes up the next morning without his fancy clothes and papers. He is given the name “Platt” and sold into slavery.
Northup’s first “Master” is Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who recognizes Northup’s unusual abilities as a slave but the overseer, Tibeats (Paul Dano), feels threatened by him and he is sent away. His new owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is a brutal sadist. His wife, Mistress Epps (Sarah Paulson), knows he is sleeping with a slave, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). He is obsessed with Patsey and tells his wife he would rather get rid of her than Patsey. Patsey has one major redeeming factor: she picks twice as much cotton as anyone else. Yet when she goes off to another plantation for a bit of soap, Epps’s fury at her not being within his sight is revealed in the film’s most horrific scene of sadism.
The most shocking thing about slavery is the owner’s firm belief that it is perfectly normal to buy, abuse and re-sell human beings.
Northup has no prior knowledge of slavery and is quickly told by others not to admit to knowing how to read or write. He is warned not to talk and just obey. While the slaves are all resigned to their life of abject misery, Northup cannot forget his wife and children and accept his fate. When he meets a white man who seems sympathetic Northup pays him to mail a letter. The man tells Epps. He is hung and left there for days while fear keeps away anyone to pull him down.
The only man who understands the horror of slavery is a Canadian, Bass (Brad Pitt), who has been contracted to build a structure on Epps’ property. With Northup assisting him, Bass is the film’s moral conscience.
Director McQueen shows all the savagery of slavery, especially appalling is the way that the plantation owners accept the fact that slaves are their property. Epps treatment of Patsey represents the rape of female slaves still occurring today.
Ejiofor is amazing, with his face expressing his inner thoughts as he watches the horror around him. The fact that he is a big man makes his subservience all the more shocking. Not only does Ejiofor richly deserve a Best Actor nomination (he’ll be up against Robert Redford for the win!), so does Michael Fassbender, in a co-starring role with no saving traits. Epps is a very difficult role to play. Having starred in two terrific films by McQueen, “HUNGER” and “SHAME,” their collaboration is clearly built on trust and Fassbender’s fearless approach to choosing difficult men to play. It is also the second time Fassbender has whipped a woman on film. Just saying…
Pitt’s production company, Plan B, produced the film and it is the third film Pitt and Fassbender have starred in together.
Along with Ejiofor and Fassbender, McQueen should reap all the accolades for bringing “12 YEARS A SLAVE” to the screen without shoving guilt at us. This is not a film that sets you up for condemnation. This is what happened and this is wrong. What McQueen does is lay out Northup’s story told in his autobiography and by constructing Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase: “the banality of evil.”
“12 YEARS A SLAVE” is one of the best films of the year and Steve McQueen a masterful director deserving of recognition this award season.
*The Portuguese, the Dutch, the British and the French all built forts to defend their trading interests. For more than 200 years, the main commodity they traded was people. Slave traders rounded up men, women and children, at times trapping them with nets. Once caught the slaves were forced to walk in chains hundreds of miles to Ouidah, Benin. In Ouidah we walked the 4 km “Route des Esclaves” down to the beach to the Gateway of No Return, the last time the slaves saw Africa.
We went to the slave auction site, Place Chacha, in front of the home of the “greatest slave trader” Don Francisco de Souza, a Brazilian who made a fortune out of slave-trading while living in Benin. He allegedly had 99 wives and hundreds of children. I walked around the supposedly magical tree called the Tree of Forgetfulness. Slaves were branded according to the mark of the purchaser at the Tree of Forgetfulness. Men had to go round it nine times, women and children seven. This experience, they were told, would make them forget everything – their names, their family, and the life they had once had. In all, Brazil received some four million slaves from Africa.
**I recommend “Race and Slavery in the Middle East” by Bernard Lewis.
***CNN World reported on October 17, 2013: A new report claiming to be the most comprehensive look at global slavery says 30 million people are living as slaves around the world. The Global Slavery Index, published by the Australia-based Walk Free Foundation, lists India as the country with by far the most slaves, with an estimated nearly 14 million, followed by China (2.9 million) and Pakistan (2.1 million).
Victoria Alexander lives in Las Vegas, Nevada and answers every email. You can contact Victoria directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.