Sunday, November 17, 2013
A searing indictment of chattel slavery in the antebellum South, “12 Years a Slave” (**** OUT OF ****) depicts the tragic odyssey of a free-born African-American violinist shanghaied and sold into slavery by unscrupulous white chiselers. Solomon Northup’s literary chronicle implicates himself as much for his own naivety as the avarice of the assailants who hoodwinked him for monetary gain. Two smooth-talking con artists in top-hats persuade our hero to leave the safety of New York so he can play his fiddle at a concert in Washington, D.C. They assure Northup that they will pay him handsomely for his services and reimburse him for any expenses incurred during the trip to and from the capitol. The surprises and shocks that ensue as a consequence of their mendacity turn Northup’s life upside-down. British-born, black director Steve McQueen and “Red Tails” screenwriter John Ridley pull few punches in their largely realistic portrayal of Northup’s exploits. They adapted Northup’s eloquent autobiographical account of his captivity between 1841 and 1853. Of course, nobody should be flabbergasted that Northup’s memoirs contain a far greater wealth of information than the film. Naturally, McQueen and Ridley had to eliminate some Northup’s various adventures to make a movie under two-and-a-half-hours in length. Northup’s hanging provides one clear example. Three bitter whites resolve to string up Northup until an overseer intervenes. In Northup’s memoir, he was never actually hanged. In McQueen’s film, Northup is hanged, but he manages to balance himself on the tip-toes until somebody cuts down. “
Mind you, this isn’t the first time that Northup’s horrific ordeal has been presented in the media. “Shaft” director Gordon Parks produced “Solomon Northup's Odyssey” back in 1984 for PBS's “American Playhouse” anthology television series. After its original telecast, the Parks’ teleplay came out on home video as “Half Slave, Half Free.” Inexplicably, McQueen had never heard about Solomon Northup and his plight when he was searching for a story to shoot about slavery. Unlike Parks and his “American Playhouse” production, Mc Queen and Ridley were not restrained by the straitlaced standards of television censorship. As much as “12 Years a Slave” is a yarn about courage in the face of wholly insurmountable odds, this Fox Searchlight release qualifies as a horror movie that provides little relief from our protagonist’s travails until the end credits roll. Happily, McQueen doesn’t paint all whites as unrepentant dastards. Indeed, our hero survives this adversity because compassionate whites stand up to unsavory whites. Nonetheless, for all but a quarter-hour of its running time, “12 Years a Slave” makes you abhor the individuals who abuse Solomon. The worst plantation owner of the bunch rapes his most productive black female slave repeatedly on a regular basis while his jealous wife dreams up schemes to drive the object of her husband’s lust from their property.
Movies about Southern slavery, sometimes referred to as the “peculiar institution,” usually focus on slaves born into bondage. McQueen sought to make a film that would appeal to broader audience. Ridley and he found in Northup’s memoir the perfect vehicle for this perspective. Since Northup had been born free, we can identify with him more than we might a poor soul who never possessed his freedom. Similarly, the same is true of those 18th century British sea-faring tales about helpless lads kidnapped by press gangs and forced into service by His Majesty’s Government because they happened to be in the wrong place at the right time. In “12 Years a Slave,” two grifters posing as traveling entertainers appealed to Solomon’s vanity as a musician to earn some quick, easy cash. When things seem too good to be true is when you should flee temptation. Solomon trusts these gentlemen implicitly, and they escort him to the nation’s capitol. Once they arrive, they wine and dine him at an elegant restaurant and then slip him a Mickey Finn, the equivalent of the date rape drug Rohypnol, in his libation. When he entered Washington, Solomon was dressed as splendidly as any Caucasian gentleman. When he awakens the following morning on the outskirts of the capitol, Solomon finds himself attired in a night gown with a web of chains on both his wrists and ankles. When he protests his status as a free-born black, the slave traders whip him into submission with a wooden paddle. At this point, our hero winds up far from home in Louisiana where he must pick cotton, cut sugar cane, and grovel before his bullwhip wielding masters.
“12 Years a Slave” lives up to its R-rating. The film contains considerable violence and cruelty, with extreme profanity as well as some nudity and brief sexuality. Various characters utter the politically incorrect N-word as many as 60 times in the company of other derogatory adjectives. The violence is far more disturbing than the sexuality. Nude scenes occur when the slaves must bathe before an auction. Similarly, when buyers inspect the slaves, they force them to strip naked. According to Northup’s memoirs, slaves whose bodies bore the mark of the lash were not as easy to sell as slaves with unblemished bodies. A slave with too many scars was regarded as rebellious and considered poor prospect for sale. 12 Years a Slave” makes the Hollywood classic “Gone with the Wind” look like a fairy tale. Although nobody suffers the loss of body parts as in the television mini-series “Roots,” the torture scenes where a female slave is lashed so badly that her back resembles a chopping board and male slaves are hoisted atop tree branches to hang until dead equal any of the ghastly horrors in Steven Spielberg 1993 Holocaust epic “Schindler's List.” English actor Chiwetel Ejiofor of “American Gangster” gives an unforgettable performance as Solomon Northup who suffered untold terror at the hands of his sadistic captors. Naturally, as formidable as McQueen’s film is, Solomon Northup’s memoir is ten times more fascinating.