Arts movie review

A harrowing look at the life of a slave

Amazing performances by Chiwetel Ejiofer and Lupita Nyong’o make a must-see movie

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Solomon Northup, played by Chiwetel Ejiofor, in 12 Years A Slave.
Jaap Buitendijk


12 Years A Slave

Directed by Steve McQueen

Starring Chiwetel Ejiofer, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael Fassbender, Sarah Paulson, and Benedict Cumberbatch

Rated R

Now playing

American history is extremely messy. It is often hard to believe that a country founded on the idea of freedom and equality for all denied these freedoms to women and minorities for so long. But the movie 12 Years a Slave forces us to confront one of the greatest evils in the history: slavery.

The narrative focuses on Solomon Northrup (Chitwel Ejiofer), a free man living in Saratoga, New York, in 1841. Though racism is still present, Northrup manages to earn a living by playing the violin, and cares for his beautiful wife and children. Though Northrup lives in the 1800s, there is a scene of him tucking his two children to bed, the same way it is still done today, which accentuates the terror when he is kidnapped and enslaved.

Director Steve McQueen does an amazing job of recreating Northrup’s horror. In the dark, Northrup is terrified and calls for help, tearing at his chains, as he gradually remembers how he was drugged the previous night. He calls for help are soon answered, but by slavers, who viciously beat him for daring to say that he is a free black man. As he takes off his shirt later, we see the bloody lacerations along his skin, the price for a few simple words.

Northrup is shipped off to New Orleans, and he quickly loses much of his identity. He is stripped of his clothes and his name, forced to become “Platt.” He is sold to Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), a seemingly kind slave owner, then an extremely cruel master, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).

Though Ford is considered a relatively kind master, it quickly becomes clear than his conscience stops at his pocketbook. When Northrup tussles with Tibeats, Ford’s carpenter, Tibeats attempts to lynch Northrup. Northrup is only saved because Ford still owes a debt on Northrup, but he is still left to hang until nightfall. In one of the most terrifying sequences of the movie, Northrup must stand on his tiptoes on a sliding muddy bank to support himself as the noose still hangs around his neck. Yet Mrs. Ford, the overseer and all the other slaves just watch him struggle for breath. It is impossible to understand the conditioning that has allowed the entire plantation to ignore a man on the verge of death.

Northrup’s next master is even more brutal. For all of Ford’s neglect and contempt, nothing can match the brutality of Edwin Epps. He is indiscriminately cruel, but most terrifying is his fickle hate and love for the slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). He frequently rapes a dead-eyed Patsey, flaunting his infidelities in front of his powerless wife Mary (Sarah Paulson). When Mary cannot force her husband to sell Patsey, she retaliates by brutally beating her. The tension between Epps and his wife escalates to its climax, where Mary belittles Epps until he beats Patsey, into unconsciousness. Fassbender and Paulson both create such arresting portrayals of evil incarnate, that it was difficult to remember that they were acting. Nyong’o’s searing portrayal of the innocent Patsey is impossible to turn away from.

12 Years a Slave is a harrowing look into the past. Though the story focuses on Northrup, a free man, it is a reminder of what can happen when we lose our freedom. McQueen has directed an amazing work, reminding us that slavery had a reverberating effect on everyone in the South. It forces us to consider the fact that any inequality in a society means that many more suffer. The lesson of 12 Years a Slave lingers long after the movie ends.