1853 slave narrative comes to the big screen in 2013
By Kevinisha Walker
Filmed on four historic Antebellum plantations in Louisiana, Steve McQueen’s “12 Years a Slave” captures the brutalities of slavery and the effects it has on black people, including Solomon Northup—a free black man who is kidnapped in Washington, D.C. and placed into slavery for the next 12 years of his life.
The film features a mix of well-known and unfamiliar faces, including actor Chiwetel Ejiofor—of “American Gangster” and “2012” fame—who plays Northup, and newcomer Lupita Nyong’o who plays Patsey, a slave on the Epps plantation.
It’s easy to compare this film to Alex Haley’s “Roots.” Both “12 Years a Slave” and “Roots” are adapted from novels. Haley researched his family’s roots and wrote a novel about his findings, and Northup wrote an autobiography about his 12-year enslavement. They both show in graphic detail the horrors of slavery, including the beatings with whips and hangings.
But they differ because while “Roots” doesn’t show female slaves getting beaten, “12 Years a Slave” does, and with today’s technology, the lashings look more real than ever before.
It was extremely difficult to watch Nyong’o’s Patsey get beaten so many times and with such force. I almost felt like I was on that Louisiana plantation witnessing the act. The blood leaking from her back with each strike of the whip left an unforgettable impression in my mind.
Northup’s story also differs from Haley’s in that it shows a different dynamic between the master and his female slave. Master Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, consistently rapes Patsey, which is not unusual from what many other slave masters did. But his obsession with Patsey, leads him to jealousy if he thinks she’s attracted to anyone else.
Another difference between Haley and Northup’s stories is the fact that Master Epps has an attraction toward young, female slaves with dark skin. In fact, there’s a scene in the film where Master Epps is coddling a female, dark-skinned child slave. As soon as I saw that scene, I imagined him doing the same to Patsey when she was a child.
In “Roots,” masters seemed to prey on young, female slaves who seemed to be more light-skinned than dark-skinned. The fact that the female slaves were young stood out more than the fact that they were light-skinned or dark-skinned, however.
Some argue that they don’t know what is worse, being born free and forced into slavery later in life or being born enslaved and never knowing what it’s like to be free. While both are dreadful circumstances, having freedom and then having it taken away is probably the worst case, as the film conveys.
Northup knew what it was like to be free. He had a family and played the violin for a living. He knew what it was like to have a life that wasn’t dictated by a slave master. He knew what it was like to play the violin because he enjoyed it and not because he was forced to play by his master.
But it is his gift for playing the violin that ultimately leads to his kidnapping. Two white men lure Northup into a touring gig and eventually drug and sell him into slavery.
Northup wakes up chained in an abandoned building, and when he declares that he is a free man, overseers beat him soon after.
The film documents Northup’s experiences on two Louisiana plantations. One plantation had a sympathetic master, and the other had an extremely cruel master.
Northup does not see his family again until Brad Pitt’s character, Samuel Bass, writes a letter to Northup’s wife. And she gets an attorney to free him. While Pitt’s role in the movie was small, it was important.
One of the most compelling scenes was when Northup finally returns home to his family. He sees his wife, his daughter and son—who had become adults—and his grandson for the first time in 12 years. He apologizes to them for his appearance, as his body is frail and worn from beatings, and he no longer looks like the man they used to know. But his wife tells him he has nothing to apologize for. Tears roll down Northup’s face as his family embraces him as if he hadn’t been gone for 12 years.
“12 Years a Slave” featured Oscar-worthy performances, especially from Ejiofor and Nyong’o. With both actors being natives of England and Kenya respectively, they spoke with southern accents very well.
There was hardly anything that I didn’t like about this film except that I wish it had come out sooner. It has the power to resonate with people from all walks of life.
It was brilliantly written and wisely cast. I recommend that everyone sees it.