Truth, not fiction

Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup in 12 Years A Slave Solomon Northrup /
from Saratoga Springs, free papers in my pocket, violin /
under arm, my new friends Brown and Hamilton by my side

The Abduction, Rita Dove

In his review for Steve McQueen’s 12 Years A Slave, the creator of The Wire David Simon paid the highest compliment he could to the film-maker:

“Everyone who had anything to do with this film getting made – from the producers, to director Steve McQueen, and the committed, talented cast – should sleep tonight and every night knowing that for once, the escapism, bluster and simple provocation that marks a good 95 percent of our film output has been somehow flanked, and subversively so.”

Already the film has been listed as one of the cinema events of 2013.

It made it to Australia in late January 2014 and the same will be true in this part of the world. 12 Years… is not only another fantastic addition to the challenging oeuvre of director McQueen (Hunger), but a perfectly aimed riposte to the – if you will pardon the expression – whitewashing of slavery by American cinema.

From the leering black militia thugs of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation to the vacant slavery revenge fantasy of Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (reviewed in the April 2013 issue of Crosslight), Hollywood has purposely presented a toothless version of historical events.

The frequent comparisons featured in reviews between this film and Django Unchained see McQueen’s superior film locked into a limited context for analysis.

Whereas Tarantino delivers yet another pastiche of exploitation cinema that is more revenge fantasy than historical drama, 12 Years… presents the story of real-life abductee Solmon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who witnesses the brutal treatment of slaves, particularly women, by their callous owners.

Almost every plot movement in this film is set by the treatment of women, distinguishing it clearly from the macho posturing of Tarantino’s comic book fantasy.

The facts are these.

Freeman Solomon Northup was kidnapped in 1841 and sold into slavery by two men who called themselves Brown and Hamilton. Arriving first at a plantation owned by the morally troubled William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), he is given the false identity of Platt, an escaped Georgian slave.

When Northup/Platt earns the enmity of Ford’s carpenter John Tibeats (a shrieking performance from Paul Dano) he is sold to the tyrannical Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Fassbender is terrifying here, a manically violent slave-owner who brutalises and rapes his ‘property’ under the aegis of a mangled religious faith.

Ejiofor in turn brilliantly plays the double-role of Northup/Platt, having to disguise his identity as a freeman from Epps as it would mean his death.

Their scenes together are loaded with an almost overwhelming sense of menace.

The use and misuse of religion is a recurring plot-point throughout. Ford gives services to an assemblage of his family and their slaves to play the benevolent patriarch. Epps, by contrast, uses the Old Testament to browbeat his slaves into submission. An itinerant Canadian, played by Brad Pitt, discusses how slavery is incompatible with his faith.

The use of dialogue is important in this film, which is filled with period-specific anachronisms.  Northup, Brown and Hamilton converse in the heady style of a philosophical dialogue by George Berkeley, while as Platt he is reduced to the mumbling patter familiar to slavery-era cinema.

It is a telling departure that levels the playing field – Northup being kidnapped from civilized society and sold into bondage becomes immediately more traumatising for the audience.

It also elicits a great deal more empathy for Ejiofor’s character than is typical for this genre.

As Simon noted in his review, the director, stars and cinematographers have much to be proud of. This is a fantastic looking film, building in momentum to an emotional climax, with a wonderful score to boot.  This is a must-see movie that challenges modern-day recollection of a great historical injustice.

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