What is the cost of freedom? It’s a question that rests in the minds of many and some that take for granted. Last month, Juneteenth was established as a Federal Holiday in the United States to honor the anniversary of June 19, 1865 when Texas received word that slaves were to be free; the last state in the Confederacy to still have institutional slavery. The Emancipation Proclamation was signed into law on January 1, 1863, granting freedom to nearly three and half million enslaved African Americans. In honor of Independence Day, let’s return to America’s Original Sin and examine one man’s story of how he obtained his freedom after it was taken away. That film is 12 Years a Slave.
Based on the memoir of the same name by Soloman Northup, the film follows Solomon (Chiewetel Ejiofor) as he is a free man living in New York. He’s married with two children and is a violinist. He dresses well and is living the good life. One day he meets two men who offer him a short-term employment as a musician. They request him to travel to Washington D.C. which he accepts. It seems like a nice opportunity that is until one night, Solomon has a bit too much to drink, or so he thinks, only to wake up in chains and imprisoned. He pleads with the man who runs the slave pen that he’s a free man and that what is happening to him is a mistake. He begs to be released and returned to his family only for his cries to be ignored as he is savagely beaten.
He is then shipped to New Orleans where he will be purchased and sent to a plantation to work as a slave. In one of the most heartbreaking scenes of the movie, and there are many, we see a scene where the purchasing happens and a mother is forcibly separated from her children. We are sure that she will never see her children again and the sheer realization and pain that settles in is something that the mother cannot bring herself to pass.
Solomon is sent to a plantation that is run by William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) who is really kind to Solomon. Even though he is a slave owner, he doesn’t display the cruelties that other such plantation owners are known for. Later, Ford is forced to sell Solomon after a threat is put against him. Ford does respect Solomon and wants to spare his life and unfortunately, he is being sent to the one man that no one should ever see. That man is Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
After Solomon is sent to the Epps plantation, that’s when the real cruelty and sheer brutality is seen in full display. Epps is ruthless and sees his treatment of his slaves as appropriate as they are his property and even justifies the whipping of a slave as a sermon in the Bible. Epps whips his slaves to the inch of their life and takes great pride in raping a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Epps’s wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) is equally as cruel especially when she lashes out at Patsey in a physical manner. Mary is essentially a product of the period for which she lived. She looks down at the slaves and feels that she is ultimately superior to them. Every scene that unfolds at the Epps plantation is gripping to watch and there isn’t a single bad scene in the movie.
As the film concludes, we have followed Solomon’s tumultuous journey that has lasted for twelve years. Twelve years of being a slave. Twelve years of being forcibly separated from his family. Twelve years of being stripped of his identity and forced to live a life that no one should ever have to endure. 12 Years a Slave is certainly not watchable in terms of entertainment, but it is essential viewing. In many ways, this movie reminded me of another film that examines the cruelty of people and details the actual events of such an atrocity of human rights abuses- Schindler’s List. While 12 Years a Slave does take creative liberties with some aspects of the story, majority of the film is taken from the words that Solomon wrote down in his memoirs.
The main theme of this film is survival. Upon being shipped to New Orleans, Solomon engages in a conversation with enslaved men on a ship. One man tells him to just obey and say nothing of your previous life. No matter what you say, it doesn’t change a thing. This is the reality that Solomon now faces. It’s one thing to just accept the fate that has fallen into your lap, or in this case, forced upon you, but survival isn’t good enough for Solomon, he wants to live.
Hope is another crucial theme. The hope that one day Solomon can gain his freedom back. The hope that one day he will be reunited with his family. Perhaps one day, the men who sold him into slavery will pay for what they’ve done. Hope is something that keeps us alive by giving one a glimpse into the possible even though the means to get there may not be available to us at that time. Solomon does his job in order to keep on living and seeing what he sees opens our eyes into this man’s journey of sheer hell.
12 Years a Slave is a very violent movie but the cruelty that is displayed is vital to witness. The whippings, the beatings, the torture, the rapes and the numerous threats of violence are all what the enslaved people encountered on a daily basis. Director Steve McQueen shows us what life was like on the plantation and the consequences that one endured whenever they made a mistake or didn’t work hard enough. While witnessing the violence may be upsetting for the audience, as it should, it’s one of many moments where you can’t look away. We are drawn into everything that is happening and much like Schindler’s List, seeing the violence on screen is a representation of what actually happened. We need to see the violence and the anguish. Seeing the torn flesh being slowly healed and the cries of the slaves is essential to understand what they went through. It’s a powerful and emotional experience that everyone should see for the simple fact of understanding what happened in this country not a mere two-hundred years ago.
Even Paul Giamatti as the slave trader in New Orleans is very good here at being cruel. The sheer lack of empathy on his face when separating a mother from her children is one scene in particular that is impossible to forget. Michael Fassbender is equally effective as the brutal Epps. In fact, every actor in this movie does excellent work and there isn’t a bad scene at all. Every scene flows much like reading a book and turning each page waiting to see what happens next.
12 Years a Slave is a movie that I probably won’t see again, but is one that is nonetheless unforgettable. The performances are evocative and emotionally driven. Steve McQueen’s direction is flawless and the script by John Ridley is pure perfection. To understand slavery, we must tell the stories of the ones who survived and lived to tell their story. I’m positive there are many more out there and Solomon Northup’s story is one of millions that need to told and never forgotten.
Today, we celebrate our independence as we do every year even though our Founding Fathers wrote that black people are only three fifths of a white man, so that they could be free from British rule. A stunning hypocrisy in the history of the United States. It was America’s Original Sin and learning about this dark cloud in history is one that everyone should study so that future generations will do better.
While it’s easy to criticize slave owners for their actions, they were the product of their time. The only thing we can do is observe, listen and understand what happened during that period of time. 12 Years a Slave shows us the cruelty in ways that appears justified to the abuser and a way of life for the enslaved people who just want to survive their ordeal. This is a film that should be required for schools to show to their students, the very same as Schindler’s List.
One thing is for certain, 12 Years a Slave didn’t win enough Academy Awards but at least it won the ones that really mattered. In honor of Independence Day, let us not forget what it means to be truly free. For the ones who are still enslaved and persecuted out there, a day will come when you will be free and we want to hear your stories when your able to convey them to the world. Freedom comes at a price and we should never forget the sacrifices that were made in order to achieve the simple notion of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Happy Independence Day Everyone!