12 Years a Slave (2013)
Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Movies need some underlining resonance for me to connect to them. I need a fragment of hope or of beauty amid a broken world. Previous stories that have touched on slavery have focused on those attempting to do good, to promote abolition, or to shift public opinion toward the belief that slaves are human beings, loved by God, who should be treated as such. This is more of a tale highlighting the horrors of slavery itself, so it is, in a true sense, depictive of the worst of human nature and as such, somewhat devoid of hope.
Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a freed man in the north. Happily married and the proud father of children, he bids his beautiful wife a short farewell when she leaves to cook for a rich family's event. Little does he know it will be twelve years before he sees her again. Promised a fair wage to play his violin on a circus tour, Solomon naively trusts his new friends ... who at the end of his appearance, ply him with alcohol and sell him to a slave trader. Brutalized for insisting he is a free man, he is then shuttled aboard a slave transport and taken into the deep south. The benevolent "Master Ford" (Benedict Cumberbatch) purchases him and he quickly becomes a favorite of the household, because he has true skill in figuring out how to increase the slaves' productivity. But his refusal to back down to the overseer results on an attempt on his life; desperate to save him but afraid to keep him, Ford sells him to a new master ... the brutal Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Life is very different on this cotton plantation. Slaves must pick at least two hundred pounds a day to avoid punishment. One of them, a beautiful teenage girl, picks over five hundred pounds and is a "special favorite" of Epps, who soon forces her to become his mistress. Solomon keeps his head down and works hard, but continues to search for a way back to his family. It's hard, in a world where anyone sympathetic is scared to help him...
This film is exceedingly difficult to watch. It shows how slavery reduces human beings to property, and how one particular slave owner treated his slaves worse than dogs. It's unfathomable to most people to comprehend that kind of desensitization and prejudice, that would stand by and do nothing as people are abused ... or that would abuse them. This level of cruelty is intense and not something modern audiences are comfortable lingering on. There is also not much hope in it; it does have a happy ending of sorts (he is allowed to go home many years later) but far more time is devoted to showing the horrors he experienced than his eventual happiness at being reunited with his family. I found it quite depressing, so more sensitive viewers may want to bear in mind that this is probably the most brutal and unyielding continual depiction of slave abuse ever shown on screen.
It is extremely well done from a purely cinematic standpoint, full of wonderful acting from many unknowns (and a few who are know!). It paints a richly vivid, if cruel, portrait of the south and also touches on the deeply unfair civil system of the time ... a world in which a man can be stolen away and his life destroyed, forced into slavery and liberated, but who cannot then win a case against his abductors. In a sense, while the film is powerful, it misses an opportunity to leave room for complex discussions about the period and our perspective on slavery by continually shocking us with abuse. What we will remember from it is not our questions about how such a decent man as Ford could justify owning another human being, and looking the other way at an educated slave, but the sight of Epps chaining a teenage girl naked to a post and beating her to a bloody pulp because she dared to walk across the field to get soap from a neighboring household.
Slaves are stripped naked and forced to bathe in front of people; they are displayed nude in front of potential buyers (frontal nudity on both sexes, backside nudity). A woman is stripped naked, shackled to a post, and whipped until bloody (her breasts and bare backside are seen). A man is shown raping a woman (she doesn't resist and is compliant, but he slaps her midway through when she stops breathing -- there is graphic movement). A woman takes a man's hand, places it on her breast under her shirt, and moves it around; then she moves his hand downward. Movement and heavy breathing follows, before she turns away and cries. Mention is made of fulfilling the master's sexual desires.
Scattered bad language (sometimes God's name is coupled with a profanity). Rampant use of the word "n*gger."
Slaves are brutalized and flogged. Lynched and left wriggling ... or left barely touching the ground, so they must stand on their toes for hours. A jealous wife abuses the slave girl that catches her husband's eye -- by slapping her, throwing things at her, and brutalizing her in private. These scenes are all intense and hard to watch. A teenage girl asks a man to kill her, by holding her head under water; she cannot stand the physical and sexual abuse any longer (he refuses).
One slave owner professes Christianity and is compassionate to his slaves. He reads them scripture, but still buys and sells them -- including his favorite, to a much harsher man. The new master uses scripture to defend brutalizing his slaves and flogging them mercilessly. He professes to keep Sunday holy but rapes his slave girl.