If you can stomach the stark, do watch Twelve Years a Slave.
It was a humbling experience.
The absolute extremes of human behavior come alive through the engrossing screenplay that does complete justice to Solomon Northup’s horrifying tale of being kidnapped and spending twelve years as a slave.
The well-to-do American ‘free’ Negro, Solomon ( played with finesse by Chiwetel Ejiofor), is led by two white men to Washington, drugged and shipped off as a slave, further south. He is beaten into calling himself Platt; he finds it prudent to hide his education and intelligence. His various attempts to establish his identity and procure his ‘free’ papers come to nought, until he is sold at his third plantation to the vile Edward Epps.
After seemingly unending years of torture – the pain of separation from his family, dealing with the master’s unreasoning contempt and his idiosyncratic, inhuman demands, watching fellow slaves beaten and raped if they so much as opened their mouths, called beast and treated worse – he happens to meet a sympathetic Canadian carpenter ( Brad Pitt) who directs the right people to find him and free him.
What makes this film special?
The sheer humanness of Solomon. First – his total compassion for and understanding of human needs. In one of the first few scenes, slaves are being transported in a ship and his encounter with another slave, a woman, is at once primordial and spiritual. Solomon’s large expressive eyes tell of his simmering, burgeoning anger, his utter contempt for white fools, his helplessness at being unable to help Patsy, the young repeatedly raped slave girl and his regret at having to leave her behind as he makes his way back to freedom and his family ( wife and now grown up children).
The portrait of cruelty and delusion of power. Many scenes stand out. One is when Solomon ( then with a sympathetic master Mr Ford, played by Benedict Cumberbatch) thrashes a white overseer, the man returns with two friends and puts a noose around Solomon’s neck and hangs him from a tree. The timely intervention by the senior overseer, also white, saves Solomon from completely swinging away to his death. But a slave cannot go unpunished for attacking a white man. Thus Solomon is left with the noose around his neck, suspended from the tree, balancing his life on his toes, from morning till dusk. A scared housemaid comes and gives him a few sips of water. The plantation goes about business as usual and only when Ford returns home and rushes to cut the taut rope is Solomon freed from his agony. The background is slowed down a little for effect; cotton pickers, gardeners, cleaners, children playing move in slow motion to form the blurred, idyllic backdrop to the hanging, gasping Solomon. The sounds are chilling – Solomon’s ragged rasp contrasting with the giggles of the playing children and the distant voice of a slave woman.
The director Steve McQueen’s sequences unfold slowly and he uses a number of close-ups, leaving the audience no escape from the fear and anguish of those enslaved. A brilliant film with extraordinary performances, it forces you to think about cruelty and humanity, no matter which era or continent you live in.
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