“12 Years A Slave” Is Hard To Watch But It’s A Must-See Film


Fassbender, Nyong’o, Ejiofor

I found myself saying “Mother——” on at least four occasions during the course of the film, 12 Years A Slave last night.

Each time, I thought I was just mouthing the word; it kept coming out a bit too loudly.

Not surprisingly, at the end of the movie, when the credits started rolling, an audience member at the back, two rows behind me, stood up and started loudly denouncing this nation for its racist past, Slavery, Jim Crow segregation, The New Jim Crow, and contemporary injustices such as the Trayvon Martin murder.

The first MF that I overheard myself saying was during Solomon Northrup’s first whipping (the role is played brilliantly by Chiwetel Ejiofor, who should reserve a hotel room in LA for his Oscar), just after he’d been tricked and kidnapped into slavery.

The year is 1841. The day before he wakes up in chains, Northrup had been a free, educated and prosperous man, living with his wife and children in Saratoga, New York State. Now he found himself in shackles after he’d awoken from a previous night’s feasting and drinking with supposed recruiters who wanted to get into business with him.

When he tells the people entrusted with transporting him down South that it was all one big mistake, and that the chains be removed, he tastes the whip on his back. When he refuses to renounce his free status and to “admit” that he was a slave, there’s more whipping.

After trying to prove he was an educated man for years, eventually Northrup starts pretending he can’t even read, to preserve his life on the plantation.

The second time I used MF (and most people who’ve known me for years know I normally never say MF) was when Northrup was hung from a tree as punishment for beating up a troublesome and envious Over-Seer at the first plantation.

He was left to dangle for hours from the tree. It was painful to watch. Around him life continued. Women and men walked by and the children of enslaved Africans played in the background. Northrup was choking but his feet weren’t completely off the ground. He was able to barely retain his balance by keeping his toes on the ground and treading lightly to avoid swinging. One wrong move would have started a pendulum motion and that would have been the end for him.

The third MF sprung out of my mouth when Northrup had to burn the letter he’d written to his family back in Saratoga. Finally, after years, now at the second plantation, he had a chance to have someone send a message to let his loved ones know that he’d been kidnapped and enslaved. He was betrayed by the person whom he’d paid to mail the letter and he was almost killed by the Master of the plantation, Edwin Epps, played convincingly by Michael Fassbender, whom I had hoped Northrup would strangle at some point. So the letter had to disappear.

The biggest MF came during the sadistic whipping of the beautiful enslaved African, Epps’ favorite sex-victim, Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o, who should also create space on a shelf for an Oscar for her Supporting role). She was mercilessly  whipped by Northrup and Epps. Northrup was forced to perform the ugly deed when the Epps placed a pistol under his chin and threatened to blow his head off and kill every Black person on the plantation.

A few people seated next to me could be heard saying, in unison, “How could you?” as Northrup administered the beating. You could see the flesh tearing off Patsey’s back, with the blood splashing like raindrops on a windscreen.

Earlier, Patsey, who is constantly raped by Epps and physically abused by his jealous wife, begged Northrup to kill her so she could be spared the torture.

Later, when other enslaved Africans nurse the ugly red welts on Patsey’s back, she cried in pain. She paused for a brief second to look at Northrup, who is also in the room, with pain and disgust. I find myself saying to Northrup, “Why don’t you just kill yourself man?”

Twelve Years A Slave is not an easy movie to watch. But it’s a good, jarringly compelling, and powerful film.

When the word “nigger” is uttered you feel like it belongs in the scene. I doubt we’ll hear Spike Lee complaining about the usage here, unlike in Django Unchained where there was an element of gratuitous usage. Not so in 12 Years A Slave; a serious film that tells the story plainly and crudely with no gimmicks.

The film is based on a true story and the 1853 memoir of the same title by Solomon Northrup after he won his freedom 12 years after being kidnapped by bounty hunters and shipped to Louisiana. Here you see the tragedy and pain of enslaved Africans (not slaves) a few years before the Civil War without Hollywood sanitizing it.

There is the enslaved African woman (played by Adepero Oduye) who is separated from her two children and can’t stop crying. She cries when she’s seated in front of the shack; she cries while working; she cries when praying with the other enslaved Africans at the outdoor church, where the Master of the plantation leads the service.

Alfre Woodard plays the role of a majestic former enslaved African, Mistress Shaw, who is now free and married to a White plantation owner.

Epps is one of the most hateful characters I have encountered in cinema. At every instance you think that Northrup is about to lead an uprising of enslaved Africans to cut him down with his wife, who hated Patsey and later watched with contentment when she was whipped by her husband and Northrup.

But no, there is no uprising here. No Django type Western shoot-em-up scenes. Yet, the movie has a dignity of its own, largely through the stellar acting of Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o, a star-in-making.

Directed by Steve McQueen, with a script by John Ridely, this movie is worth watching more than once. It’s a great story of endurance and survival by Northrup. At the end he parts with other enslaved Africans he had become attached to, including Patsey; who, with others stay behind to continue their nightmare existence.

This film tells a very little part of the ugly story of how these United States of America was really built.



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