By Sandra Kraisirideja
“12 Years a Slave” is an unflinching account of slavery in pre-Civil War America as told by Solomon Northup, a freeman who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841 and finally rescued in 1853.
Northup’s narrative account was published in 1853 and director Steve McQueen (“Shame”) has now brought it to theaters with screenwriter John Ridley (“The Wanda Sykes Show”).
Chiwetel Ejiofor stars as Northup with Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, and Sarah Paulson as various slave owners he encounters during his captivity. Newcomer Lupita Nyong’o stars as a fellow slave, who was born and raised on a plantation, and whose performance is as heart-wrenching as Ejiofor’s. Oscar nominations are sure to be given to both actors.
The technicians behind the scenes should also receive plenty of recognition this awards season; especially Sean Bobbitt, whose cinematography creates a lush backdrop for the story and shows why the Southern landscape is still held dear by residents.
After a press screening for the movie one reviewer remarked that while he thought it was a good movie he wondered how many more times he would need to see another “slavery” movie.
The comment stuck with me because it hadn’t occurred to me that there was a surplus of slavery movies out there. The subject may have been in the background of other historical movies about the African-American experience, but how many mainstream movies have there really been where it’s front and center like “12 Years a Slave?”
I think the closest comparison would be the TV miniseries “Roots,” which focused on the slave experience. Movies like “Django Unchained” and “Glory” had main characters who were slaves, but the story did not focus on their slave experiences.
Passing on stories like “12 Years a Slave” is important because it remind those who were not there what it was like, with the hope that history won’t repeat itself.
I learned a couple things about slavery that I didn’t know before. First, that the wives of slave owners could be just as cruel as their husbands. As sadistic as Fassbender’s character is in “12 Years a Slave,” his wife, played by Paulson, is even worse as she loves to manipulate her husband’s emotions in order to get him to punish the slaves even more.
Secondly, that slaves sometimes became the legitimate wives of plantation owners. Alfre Woodard is shown enjoying a leisurely life that only seemed reserved for white women. We dont’ get to learn how Woodard’s character achieved such fortune and I think it would make a great TV show.
Lastly, McQueen’s movie shows just how difficult it was for slaves to break free from their situations. Hope would have been hard to hold onto.Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures.