The movie is based on Solomon Northup’s autobiography, Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853.
Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a skilled fiddle-player and a family man, was abducted in 1841. A pair of traveling showmen lured him from his home, wife and children in Saratoga Springs, New York, with the promise of fast money in return for playing the violin in a circus. Even though Northup was officially a freeman (so a son of a freed slave, born in a state which abolished slavery) they drugged and sold him to a slave pen in Washington, D.C. as if they caught him in an African jungle.
Solomon was given a new name – ‘Platt’ – and was robbed of every privilege he thought he’d possessed as a human being. He quickly learned that any assertions of his true identity or his education only could get him tortured or even killed – the masters wanted their slaves dumb, obedient and strong. Sold like an animal from one owner to another, flogged, beaten and humiliated, he witnessed first-hand the ugly brutality of slavery. It took Solomon twelve years to find freedom. He was the lucky one – after a while he met a decent white man, a Canadian carpenter named Bass (Brad Pitt), who, despite very real personal danger, alerted Solomon’s friends from Saratoga, enabling them to find him and deliver freeing papers.
I know, I know, it is an Oscar-winning, universally-acclaimed and well-praised movie. An movie dealing with Important Issues which always should be capitalized. It enjoys a truly flawless rating of 97% on Rotten Tomatoes and on Metacritic. That’s why I might sound overly critical, a bit stupid or even absurdly conceited (but hey, my blog my review, right?) when I say: ‘yes, I expected something more impressive, no, I didn’t like it very much and yes, I think it could have been done way better’. The source material, after all, was such a juicy morsel of a story as it dealt with a shameful and disgusting practice – a state-approved and, to some extent, church-approved slavery. An individual against the system fighting for his freedom.
What was my problem, then? When, in the last scene, after more than a decade of hard labor and isolation, Solomon returned home I thought: it is the very point I’d wish this movie to start. Unfortunately the whole story was told in a classic, linear way. I don’t say that the classic way is always bad and boring because it clearly has its advantages; perhaps 12 Years A Slave matched well the narrative of Northup himself (I don’t know, I haven’t read the book) but I found the film a bit too boring and predictable. What’s more, one very important aspect wasn’t explored by the director almost at all – I mean here the fact that Northup failed to bring any of men who’d sold/enslaved him to justice. The trials were just mentioned very casually before the final credits, nothing more than a few sentences, and it actually made me gasp because, I suppose such a horrible miscarriage of justice would be a far more acidic and important criticism of the slavery as America’s original sin than any scenes showing flogging, hanging or rape. After all with physical violence, you can put all the blame on one or several psychotic individuals; the skewed trials, however, would show how wrong the whole system was. It would be something definitely more ominous and fascinating from my point of view.
The movie wasn’t abysmal, of course, far from it. McQueen was particularly good at penetrating the specific perniciousness of Southern slavery. In antiquity, for example, if you became a slave, it was due to your bad luck or the wrath of gods – no slaveholder needed to pretend his slaves were less than human in order to justify keeping them. But the American South’s nouveaux aristocrats aped the appearance of European royalty and pretended to themselves and the world outside that they were Real Christians, reading the Bible to those black, lesser beings they happened to own, educating them in fact, often ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’- style. The result of this pretense was a horrible, hypocritical perversion that bred sadism and decadence.
Critics have proclaimed Michael Fassbender’s performance as Edwin Epps, the second owner of Solomon and a major psycho baddie, an incredible creation, and I quite agree with that assessment. Fassbender was perfect as a broken alcoholic and an abusive sadist, insanely jealous of his own slave girl, Patsey(Lupita Nyong’o) , and despising himself and everybody around him for it. As the epitome of the ‘bad’ slave owner, Epps took part in the worst, most disgusting scenes of the whole movie which almost bordered violence porn. In one such a scene Patsey , a fragile, diminutive woman, was mercilessly stripped, tied to a post and whipped, initially by Solomon, forced to do it by a revolver put to his head, and then by Epps himself, until “meat and blood flow equally”. I warn you, it was a horrible scene, portrayed with unblinking explicitness – if you can’t bear reading about it you most certainly will have a problem while watching it; I had. I suppose McQueen wanted to rub noses of the audience in degenerate brutality and the result, at least for me, was disgusting. I suppose the evils of slavery could have been exposed in a more tasteful (but still cutting) way.
Perhaps Steve McQueen deserves every gong going for his unflinching portrayal of slavery – undoubtedly one of the darker and dirtier practices in the history of the US of A and humanity at large. However, in my very humble opinion, if his movie had been edgier, more incisive and less violent it would have had a stronger impact, at least in my case. Physical violence is nothing compared to the enslavement of mind. Sadistic criminals are bad but a system that doesn’t condemn their practices and doesn’t defend their victims is even worse.