What if, one day suddenly, the freedoms you enjoy as an American citizen were taken from you and your identity beaten out of you? The term “land of the free” would seem like a crock. And, you would resent the ignorant false prophets that used God as a form or means of control.
Now that you’re in the headspace, you know one-tenth of what Solomon Northup (played by the indomitable Chiwetel Ejiofor) experienced the 12 years after he was kidnapped from his hometown of Saratoga, New York, where free blacks roamed freely.
Northup was forced into slavery in the un-kind and un-genteel south and during those 12 years he not only had his way of life stolen, he lost 12 years of his wife’s companionship, 12 years of not seeing his children grow into adulthood, 12 years of happy times with his family, and 12 years of enjoying his freedom. Those 12 years mark a nightmarish journey during which Northup was seen as property and not a man.
In John Ridley’s script (based on Northup’s memoir of the same name), the audience sees the stifling and dishonesty of a race of people who see themselves superior, but are actually ignorance at its finest. We see women who allow themselves to be concubines in order to live a nicer life.
Director Steve McQueen (the same man behind critical darling and Michael Fassbender’s star-maker Shame) gives his audience a great piece of work to start a dialogue about racism and prejudice, past, present and future. He also uses small gestures to get his point across. For instance, in the beginning, Northup walks spryly with his head held high. Toward the end of the film, he walks with his head hung low and shuffling his feet.
As Northup — or his slave name Plat — Ejiofor gives it his all. He challenges his masters and his audience to open their eyes and see the racism for what it is: a dislike of a race of people, based solely on their race. Ejiofor really also makes Northup his own. But, that’s to be expected given the caliber of Ejiofor’s acting.
Fassbender as Master Epps breaks away from his norm of subversive characters and branches out as a screwy, yet violent plantation master. Epps is the type of master who whips his slaves because they haven’t picked enough cotton and wakes them up in the middle of the night to play music and dance with each other. All of this is mainly done for his enjoyment with no rhyme or reason.
Sarah Paulson as Mistress Epps is a woman who is irrational and jealous of the field slave who has her husband’s attention solely because she picks the most cotton. Paulson’s Mistress Epps is the vilest person in the film in that she is constantly causing violence based on her bitter jealousy of a woman who has nothing and does not want anything from her.
That woman, Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), has the worst luck. She has to deal with being the object of Master Epps’ lust (that she doesn’t want) and Mistress Epps’ ill-placed wrath. Poor Patsey has to deal with the lot she has been given, stuck in hell with little to no comfort for her pain.
The phenomenal actors mentioned above aren’t the only people giving this great movie their all. The stellar cameos include Brad Pitt as pre-abolitionist Bass, Michael K. Williams as rabble rouser Robert, Beasts of the Southern Wild’s Quvenzhane Wallis as Northup’s young daughter Margaret, Pariah’s Adepero Oduye as children-less mother Eliza and Paul Giamatti as slave trader Freeman.
When it comes to the harsh reality that is slavery in the antebellum United States, it’s important to remember that these people suffered cruelty and injustices that we can only imagine. We should all take the time to be thankful that we are not where we used to be, but not even close to where we should be as far as the perception of African Americans. The best ways to combat racism is to show its affects on the human spirit, as well as show how ridiculous it is to hate someone based on their race. McQueen succeeds in that regard.