Most of us are familiar with the story of Joseph in the Bible who was sold into slavery by his brothers who were jealous of him because he shared a dream with them that one day they would bow down to him and because his father loved him more than his other brothers. He suffered greatly at the hands of the slave owners and was ultimately imprisoned for a wrong that he did not commit. In spite of the challenges he faced during his imprisonment, he did not despair; he remained hopeful that one day he would be rescued. Upon his rescue, he was reunited with his family, while holding no grudge against his brothers for their previous actions. At this point that is where the parallels end with “Twelve Years a Slave” , the authentic narrative written by and about Solomon Northup, and the story of Joseph end. Coincidently, Northup has the wisdom of “Solomon” who desires to go up North back to Saratoga to prove his free status. He uses wisdom to maneuver through daunting situations.
“Twelve Years a Slave”, a film told partly through flashback, chronicles the tragic abduction and sale of Northup, a free “Negro” from Saratoga, New York , into slavery. A pre- civil war film, initially it portrays Northup freely moving about in his community and associating with Caucasians. By 1824, slavery in New York was illegal and most blacks were free decades before the abduction of Northup in 1841. By 1802 many enslaved were beginning to gain free status in New York. The film, directed by Steve McQueen stars Chiwetal Ejiofor , Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt. Northup, played by Ejiofor, was an erudite, a musician, and an engineer able to engage in esoteric conversations . He was sold into slavery by two white men with whom he engaged in business. Using the words of Clarence Thomas during his confirmation hearings, this film is about a “high tech lynching for an uppity Negro.”
This film is about the survival, the resilience, and the ultimate triumph of an enslaved man despite ill-treatment. The brutality by slave masters, by plantation overseers, and by the wives of the slave masters is depicted in horrid scenes. This film is not for the weak stomached, but for those who have the wherewithal to sit through over two hours of a harrowing account of one of the most tragic eras in our nation’s history. While viewing the film, the tension was palpable and the emotion unrestrained as many people shed tears and gasped at scenes. One woman behind me walked out with about one half hour left in the film. She said “I can’t take any more.” Northup encounters severe beatings interspersed with little good treatment, while not fearing in his attempts to reach his family who has no knowledge of either his whereabouts or his current condition. He is courageous, in the face if fear, while exhorting his fellow enslaved to be strong. This film also juxtaposes two modes of survival against the brutality of slavery. Alfre Woodard plays the enchanted mistress of the slave master. She has no qualms about what she is doing because she is served instead of serving. She has secured many of the benefits of white women because she willingly succumbed to the sexual demands of the slave master so that all ill- treatment that she heretofore suffered would cease.
The acting, the costume design, and the direction were all of a superb caliber. Through the costumes, one can see how the free dressed compared with the enslaved. During slavery, the enslaved often wore shirts made out of flax, a material through which linen is made. In the film, the material that was used for the clothing of the enslaved was flax. In Booker T. Washington’s slave narrative, he mentions the uncomfortability of flax. The viewer is also able to see and reflect on the many elements of slavery’s era and it’s impact on the human spirit. For example, the travail of the enslaved was well captured. The work in the fields was long and arduous. Moreover, the acting is exceptional especially concerning the scenes of rampant and perpetual brutality (Including rape). The use of the “N” word was dispersed throughout the film showing the pejoration of the slave masters and the overseers toward the enslaved. The acting was delivered superbly while remaining authentic to the time period especially concerning the brutal beatings delivered by the slave masters and by the forced delivery of the beatings by the enslaved toward each other. Lastly, the film shows how the faith of the enslaved was used as a means of survival. They sang Negro spirituals to help ease the pain. The acting, the costume designing, and the directing were all made possible through the narrative, “Twelve Years a Slave”, beautifully retold through the direction of McQueen Via Northup who was ultimately rescued from slavery through the efforts of a white man, played by Pitt, who became his confidant.
I wholeheartedly recommend this film. It may not be appropriate for young children under the age of ten, unless they are precocious and are able to stomach the horrors of extreme brutality and the harrowing effects so slavery.