Year Released: 2013
Directed by: Steve McQueen (III)
Starring: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Giamatti, Brad Pitt, Sarah Paulson
(R, 134 min.)
Awards: 2014 Oscar for Best Picture; Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, Lupita Nyong’o
“I don't want to survive. I want to live.” Solomom Northrup
This exquisitely painful film depicts the kidnapping and enslavement of Solomon Northrup, a New York State citizen and free man. The first hand account puts the brutalities of slavery under a magnifying glass where the rays of truth ignite the same heat and fire in our hearts that Northrup’s true account did some 160 years ago.
The fact that Northup is a free man, living comfortably in Saratoga, New York, with his wife and children, a relatively well educated carpenter and fiddle player before he is drugged and wakes up in chains, seems at first a double injustice. But then, all African slaves were free men once, before they were rounded up, sometimes by their own countrymen, to be sold as chattel.
Much of the production’s excellence is due to its fine cast. American Paul Giamatti, makes us loathe him as the ironically named Theophilus Freeman, an utterly heartless slave trader –are there any other kind?– who nonetheless knows himself: “My sympathies extend the length of a coin.”
British Benedict Cumberbatch puts his deductive skills on hold to play a relatively enlightened plantation owner torn between his innate humanity and a self-protective refusal to acknowledge the truth of Solomon’s unlawful kidnapping.
“I cannot hear that,” he tells Northrup when he protests he is indeed a free man and not a slave.
Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o puts her heart and soul into her part as Patty, a slave at the cotton planation where Solomon eventually serves his last 8 years of slavery. The petite slave is a prolific worker, picking some 500 pounds of cotton per day, but her beauty earns nothing but pain from an owner who alternately lusts and loathes her for it.
Which brings us to Edwin Epps, the sadistic planation owner played by German-born Michael Fassbender. He is a fully realized villain, his alcohol fueled rages and lusts only slightly more repulsive than his organized Sunday preaching where he uses the Bible to exhort his slaves to accept their brutalized existence.
But it is British born Chiwetel Ejiofor, topping off this international cast, who captivates as Solomon Northrup, a man struggling not just to survive, but to remain human in the face of casual cruelty and daily indignities. Forced to conceal both his intelligence and knowledge as a way to survive, he communicates all with his eyes, deep sorrowful pools of despair.
It is impossible to leave the theater without a sense of guilt for the slave trade, which, of course is the purpose of its British born director Steve McQueen. He eschews the “the desaturated visual style that is typical of a gritty documentary” so as not to distract stylistically from the images presented.
When you think about Goya, who painted the most horrendous pictures of violence and torture and so forth, and they're amazing, exquisite paintings, one of the reasons they're such wonderful paintings is because what he's saying is, 'Look – look at this.' So if you paint it badly or put it in the sort of wrong perspective, you draw more attention to what's wrong with the image rather than looking at the image.
And McQueen and company clearly play on the highly charged emotions the film generates in their recent poster campaign depicting Solomon’s tearful goodbye to Patty with the sole accompanying phrase “It’s time.” This film about slavery, with a largely black cast, theme, black director and screenwriter, trumpets its message loud and clear to members of the Academy Awards committee, who may or may not be influenced by it.
This tendency to try a little too hard, to perhaps gild the lily is Different Drummer’s sole critique of this otherwise excellent film. Certain melodramatic touches detract from the largely accurate presentation of the details of Northrup’s book. McQueen, who helped write the screenplay as well as direct the film, changes the death of a slave from smallpox aboard ship to a dramatic stabbing as he tries to rescue a female slave from a sailor’s attempted rape.
Slave master Epp’s “lewd intentions” toward Patty in the book become fully realized rape on screen. And an opening scene showing an anonymous female slave initiating a quick sexual encounter with Solomon is nowhere to be found in the book. Perhaps one might look into McQueen’s earlier works such as Bear (1993), about “a wrestling match between two men who alternate (between).…gestures of aggression and erotic attraction. and more recently Shame (2011), which graphically depicts sexual addiction, to understand these gratuitous scenes in 12 Years a Slave.
One also might quibble that Benedict Cumberbatch’s William Ford is given a much more charitable account in Northrup’s book (“There never was a more kind, noble candid, Christian man than William Ford.”) than on screen. On the other hand, however, in the book Epps is even more loathsome and sadistic than he is in the film.
Should we also question McQueen’s omission of the fact that Northrup served his final 8 years of slavery under Epps as a slave driver, constantly wearing a whip around his neck as he worked his fellow slave.s in the field?
And perhaps we Americans have a right to share any white guilt we might feel with Britain, whose lads bring us this film. Maybe they should reexamine the own country’s slave history:
The Slave Trade was the richest part of Britain's trade in the 18th century. James Houston, who worked for a firm of 18th-century slave merchants, wrote, "What a glorious and advantageous trade this is... It is the hinge on which all the trade of this globe moves." (The Abolition Project)
Yet none of these critiques can ultimately rob 12 Years a Slave of the moving and heartfelt performances by a cast dedicated to their craft. Nor can a few cases of melodramatic overreach erase the compelling vision of brutality that still sadly occurs in some parts of this earth.
This excellent production rightfully deserves to win not one but several Academy Awards. And that is not because, “It’s time.” It is because it is well-deserved.
The slave Patty gets a short break from her daily struggles when she is invited to tea with Mistress Shaw, the wife of a neighboring plantation owner. The wife is a former slave herself, and she enjoys sharing a lovely tea and delicacies with Patty and then Solomon, who is sent to fetch her.
Mistress Shaw is no crusader, though. She thoroughly enjoys having her husband’s slaves wait on her now that she is the plantation mistress. We watch Patty and Solomon enjoy their tea while a silent house slave stands a few feet away, ready to cater to her mistress’s desires.
Here is a delicious Plantation Muffin recipe rich with cream cheese, sour cream, and made moist by crushed pineapple. Enjoy.
Plantation Sour Cream Muffin Recipe
1 cup chopped pecans
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
3 ounces cream cheese, softened (reduced-fat OK)
1 cup sugar (or Splenda)
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 cup sour cream (light OK)
1 (20 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained
1. Preheat oven to 400.
2. Spray a 12-cup muffin tin with cooking spray very heavily.
3. Sprinkle the pecans evenly among the 12 cups of the muffin tin.
4. Set aside.
5. Sift together the flour, baking soda and salt..
6. Set aside.
7. In a separate bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugar and vanilla.
8. Add the egg until well combined.
9. Add the flour mixture to the cream cheese mixture, alternately with the sour cream.
10. Do not overmix.
11. Fold in the drained pineapple.
12. Bake about 20 minutes