By Skip Sheffield
There are several worthy new film releases this Friday. Standing head and shoulders above the rest is “12 Years a Slave.”
Be advised “12 Years” is not light entertainment. It is perhaps the most realistic depiction ever of slavery in the
USA. Slavery is
never a pretty sight or sound.
Interestingly, the two main forces of “12 Years,” director Steve McQueen and star Chiwetel Ejiofor, are from the
“12 Years a Slave” is a true story based on the account of his abduction and enslavement by African-American man Solomon Northup, published in 1853. The screenplay is by another African-American, John Ridley, who wrote the stirring tale of
airmen for “Red Tails.”
Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free-born American man living in
in 1841 with his wife
Margaret (Quvenzhane Wallis) and two children. One evening in Saratoga Springs,
New York Washington, D. C. Northrup was approached by
two men with a proposition to earn quick, big money touring with a circus show. The
men plied Northrup with wine until he was quite drunk. When he woke up in the
morning he found himself in chains and manacles. He was forced aboard a sailing
ship bound for Louisiana
manned by slavers, where he was sold to the highest bidder by Theophilus
Freeman (Paul Giamatti).
The high bidder was William Ford (British actor Benedict Cumberbatch), a Baptist minister who was relatively benign as slave owners go. Unfortunately Northrup ran afoul of Ford’s cruel, racist foreman John Tibeats (Paul Dano), who forced Northrup’s sale to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a disreputable, sadistic slave-driver if there ever was one. Epps’ wife Mary (Sarah Paulsen) was not much better, and she was particularly cruel to her husband’s favorite slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Patsey is the anguished face of total submission and humiliation, raped regularly by Epps and ordered whipped until lacerated and bleeding by Mary.
There will be many instances when you will want to avert your eyes, and perhaps that is the point, painfully, powerfully driven home. Slavery was ugly and horrific and it was a tragedy it lasted as long as it did in the alleged “Land of the Free.” It is an interesting coincidence that Brad Pitt, who played a sleazy operator in the lousy film “The Counselor” plays the good guy, Canadian abolitionist Samuel Bass in this film. Michael Fassbender, who was also in “The Counselor” and two previous Steve McQueen films “Hunger” and “Shame,” pulls out all the stops in portraying one of most reprehensible villains ever seen on film. “12 Years a Slave” is strong yet still necessary medicine to remind us what tore our country apart a century and a half ago.