Let’s be honest about it: this spotlight on the darkest days of American history is a particularly British triumph. The brilliant director (and artist) Steve McQueen and outstanding Chiwetel Ejiofor, as the eponymous Solomon Northup, are both British; even Michael Fassbender, in the main support role as a sadistically brutal slave-owner, is half British; and Benedict Cumberbatch makes an appearance as a ‘kinder’ slave owner.
In the years before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black man from upstate New York, is kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. Subjected to the cruelty of one malevolent owner (Michael Fassbender), he also finds unexpected kindness from another, as he struggles continually to survive and maintain some of his dignity.
12 Years a Slave (2013)
There are many valuable lessons to be learned from history and it’s just one reason it was always my favourite subject at school. Knowing who we are and where we came from is important. To understand the good and the bad carried out by our predecessors allows us to look in the mirror and shape our own morality. Among the worst of history’s ills, and sadly one that exists to this day, is slavery. In 2019 there were said to be 40 million slaves around the world even though this barbaric practice is now illegal. Slavery is not a new idea; it pre-dates written records but whenever the word is mentioned one of the most common connotations is the slavery of black people, chained and shipped to the colonies of the United States of America. It remains a shameful stain on the American landscape as well as in Europe, home of the many colonists that changed history forever through the subjugation of millions of innocent lives. The American Civil War (1861 – 1865) saw Americans turn against one another with slavery a key factor in the conflict. President Abraham Lincoln and the Unionists would ultimately win the war and with it slavery would be abolished, though Lincoln’s assassination (1865) prevented him from witnessing it. Though slavery would end, systemic racism lives on to this day, not just in the US but across the globe. It remains one of mankind’s greatest tragedies. In Steve McQueen’s 2013 film, 12 Years a Slave, he explores not just slavery but the irrational racism that thrives in 19th century America.
Based on a true story, the film begins in 1841 and tells the tale of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a violinist who lives with his wife and two children in Saratoga Springs in New York. Though slavery still exists in America, Northrup and his family are free and able to not just wander the streets but they are not frowned upon or treated as second best; they are well-liked and respected. One day, Northrup is offered employment as a violinist in Washington DC and agrees, only to be drugged and shipped to New Orleans where he is sold into slavery, despite his protestations of being a free man. As the film’s title already suggests, we follow Solomon through 12 excruciating years of slavery where he faces racism, back breaking work, severe beatings and clings to the hope of one day being a free man again. Along the way, Solomon must contend with a variety of owners but will he find a way to break free of his chains or will slavery ultimately lead to his premature death?
Anyone familiar with the story of Solomon Northrup will go into 12 Years a Slave with the knowledge of what happens but necessarily how it happens. The thing that struck me the most about the film was how Steve McQueen depicted slavery. We are witness to some very unpleasant scenes throughout the story with slaves the victims of heavy workloads, severe beatings, rape and even lynchings. What hit me the hardest was that such cruelty was reflected in an almost casual manner. This isn’t a criticism of McQueen, it’s a recreation of reality. The story may be unfolding and while we follow its progress someone may be beaten or ostracised in a cruel manner in the background. Such unspeakable acts of violence are just part of the scenery here, it’s the way of life where Solomon finds himself enslaved. 12 Years a Slave has an impressive cast and it is credit to Chiwetel Ejiofor who is able to dominate the film while brushing shoulders with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch, Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt. Additional praise must also be directed to Lupita Nyong’o whose performance as a slave girl, Patsey, is both moving and tragic. Nyong’o would win an Oscar for her role, one of nine that the film would take home in 2014, though unfortunately no further acting accolades. In the end, McQueen holds a mirror up to American history and dares us to stare back and face the barbaric work of our ancestors.
Verdict: A well-judged and poignant display of the cruelty and injustice of slavery in 19th century America.