The Poetry of 12 Years a Slave

12 years a slave

Sometimes you see a movie that stays with you for a very, very long time.

That movie for me is 12 Years a Slave.  I nipped into a very empty cinema on a weekday afternoon recently on my own and prepared myself for an afternoon at the movies.

To say that it was like therapy is an understatement.  From the minute I first set eyes on the eyes of Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon, I was smitten. Inside his eyes I felt the weight of the 19th century reality of slavery.  The film starts out as his character, Solomon Northup, a brilliant violinist is living in Saratoga Springs quite well and happily with his wife and two children.  They are upper middle class and live amongst the white population with no problems.  He was a free man.

And the next minute everything changes.  He is kidnapped and sold into slavery where he is seen as a dirty southerner. During the 12 years he is held captive, the most catastrophic things happen to him.  He is nearly lynched, he is beaten half to death, he is forced to whip his friend, he lies to the slaveowner to save his life, he watches his fellow slave mates get killed, have their children taken from them.  The pain and suffering is unimaginable.

The memoir by the real Northup was published in 1853 and became a hit. He traveled around the world lecturing on slavery and went on to help free slaves in Vermont around 1863. Northup unsuccessfully tried to sue his captors. As a black man he was banned from giving evidence against white people in court but the book became his sweet revenge.

The film has a oddly Shakespearean-esque quality. The dialogue is in short snippets and contains words like “thee”, “thou” and “hence”. Knowing that many of them were classically trained in theater made that just fine with me. The film’s creator, Steve McQueen, who hails from the UK (funny that took a British film maker to bring us the first film on slavery in how many years to mainstream cinema?) put careful and excellent trust in his casting director. Some of my favorite actors appear in the film like Paul Dano (such a meany!), Sarah Paulson (also a bitch), Alfre Woodard, Paul Giamatti and newbies like Benedict Cumberbatch (the Brit was lucky enough to play a nice slave owner, one of the only pleasant characters in the film), Michael Fassbender (I don’t think he can ever play a nice person again, I will never believe it after seeing him play the evil slave owner who rapes one of his slave over and hover) and the other Oscar nominee besides Chiwetel, Lupita Nyong’o. They were all blessed and cursed with this film. Blessed for being in such an important film, cursed for playing such difficult roles and living and breathing the cruelty of a difficult, horrible period.

I remember watching “Roots” with my family in the 1970s.  I grew up in the south where learning about slavery came early during my education. But perhaps as an adult living in the northeast, I have not been forced to think about racism and the reality of slavery in a long time. 12 Years a Slave came along and slapped me in the face with the brutal reality of how our nation once treated our own people.

I hope that you get to see this film before the Oscars and I hope that it takes home well-deserved accolades.

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