12 Years a Slave
February 9, 2014 by Zack
“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.” Those are words spoken by our film’s protagonist, Solomon Northup (Chiwitel Ejiofor) who was a real historical black free man kidnapped and sold into slavery. The film “12 Years a Slave” depicts his journey into that world, and his hope that he can return to his family. He is an accomplished fiddler and carpenter, and has a wife and two children and lives in New York. He is approached by two seemingly harmless men to join their “circus” as a featured musician. But we all know where this is going–he is given too much wine after celebrating a successful tour, and wakes up in a cell in chains.
What follows is a very emotional story, anchored by one of the strongest performances of the year by Chiwitel Ejiofor; however, some of the film’s weak points distract from what could have been an even more powerful film. Northup is given a new name upon capture, Platt, and told he is a “runaway from Georgia”. His first experience as a slave is on a slave ship heading down to Louisiana, and witnesses some of the real brutalities of slavery immediately. He is sold by an indifferent slaver (played by Paul Giamatti) to a rather nice plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). But one of Ford’s carpenters, John Tibeats (Paul Dano), wants to make life a living hell for slaves (as if life weren’t hard enough). This is where the film is weak, and I’m a bit disappointed in Paul Dano for choosing such a caricature role. It’s easy to play the hilljack Southern racist who mugs the screen by licking his chops at any chance to yell out racial epithets and use a whip. I think we get that these people existed…but this character could’ve been played by anyone and been just as shallow and useless as an ancillary background role. Northup doesn’t back down, however, and when he fights back, he is hunted by Tibeats and even strung up, about to be lynched. Tibeats and his crew are fired by the overseer, who leaves Northup hanging, although the rope hasn’t been fully discharged, so he still can hardly breathe and dangles helplessly as a slew of people come out and do their normal routines as if nothing is happening to him. This is one of the better scenes in the film because it’s a continuous shot that continues to unfold and pretty much symbolizes what we thought of slavery and blacks at the time.
Ford is unable to protect Northup and so he sells him to another plantation owner who is far more cruel (of course) and pretty much insane. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is the new owner, who runs a strict cotton plantation, and treats his slaves as if they were animals–except one slave girl named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) for whom Epps has obvious feelings for, and is resented by his wife (Sarah Paulson). While Epps is another white guy with a whip, Fassbender brings another dimension to the character, showing him to be more of a controlled coward than just your average racist. He is consumed with wanting power, but is powerless when it comes to his wife, and he does whatever she tells him to do. She is hard to figure out–but she isn’t exactly high on the slaves, either. In a way Epps’ character reminds me of Ralph Fiennes’ Amon Goeth in “Schindler’s List” (although I think that character was better written). Epps also has a strange ritual in the evenings, to order his slaves to dance to happy music with him. Since Northup can play the fiddle, he is spared the dancing, but still has to watch it. Patsey is the most skilled picker on the plantation, bringing in over 500 pounds daily, but deep down she is consumed with wanting to be set free from the plantation, even if it means leaving the physical earth completely. At one point she asks Northup to end her life, to which he cannot bring himself to do.
Eventually a white criminal joins the group of slaves and Northup sees this as an opportunity to get out; but he is betrayed by the man and has to talk his way out of giving a letter to the man that would have reached New York, and notified his family of his predicament. Epps believes Northup’s story that the man wasn’t to be trusted anyway and just wanted to become an overseer, and this was just a tactic of his to manipulate the situation. But later, another white character is introduced–a Canadian carpenter and friendly to slaves, Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt). Bass is a bit of an arbitrary character, seemingly on brought to screen for exposition and being preachy–another weakness of the script. Pitt is a fine actor but it seems like his presence in this film was screaming “I produced this, so I’m going to put myself in the film as the most sympathetic white character.” Northup again has to try and trust this man, knowing what he is risking. But to the audience, it’s pretty obvious what will happen.
Overall, there are powerful moments in the film, especially in its climax, and thanks to Ejiofor’s incredible performance, the film works. The other strong points are the soundtrack and the cinematography. There are a lot of shots of trees, seeming to represent constancy, and even when the trees look like they’re dying or somehow suffering, they still stand strong. The backdrops of dusk and dawn show a representation of the passage of time, and how these points of day symbolize death and life. It isn’t just about surviving, as Northup points out, it is about living. This is a part of our history, whether we want to bring ourselves to accept it or not. I think the film could’ve presented a statement in a more clever way at times; but sometimes it needs to be blunt. It’s not a film you would necessarily want to watch over and over again; but for one viewing at least, it is certainly worth the time and will definitely move you.