12 Years a Slave (2013) – The Kidnapping of Solomon Northup (A Movie Review)

By the hand of the director Steve McQueen (Hunger, Shame), we got now an incredible drama with a great cast and an unbelievable story about Solomon Northup, a musician born-free African American, who was deceived, and then captured to serve as a slave in New Orleans for twelve years in 1841.

A brilliant script based on the book of the same name written by Solomon Northup himself, detailing his life as a slave in the South, and how he eventually escaped.

Solomon Northup's portrayed as a slave in his book (1853). Public Domain 1)

About this film

In 12 Years a Slave (2013), the acting ensemble couldn't be better than it already is. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Serenity, Children of Men) portrays Solomon Northup, a free man living in 1841's New York, who is kidnapped and smuggled into Louisiana, where he lived as a slave during twelve years. His acting is exquisite, and I'm not going to lie to you, he will make you cry with his honesty, and his portrayal of a man who had all in life, and all of the sudden lost it without a warning, struggling to survive in a social system that refused to see him more than a mere property. His perspective is key to understand the two kinds of societies USA had at the time prior to the Civil War. Benedict Cumberbatch (Sherlock, Star Trek: Into Darkness) performs an impressive acting as William Ford, the first owner of Solomon Northup, a devotional and polite Christian, depicted as a rather trepid man. Michael Fassbender (Inglourious Basterds, Shame) in his outstanding role of Edwin Epps, a drunk fanatical planter, who wouldn't hesitate to abuse any of his slaves, using the Bible as an instrument to do whatever he pleases with them. A remarkable mention is the performance of Lupita Nyong'o as Patsey, in a supporting role as a slave, and Edwin Epps' object of desire. She is in my opinion the biggest revelation of this movie, displaying a great talent as an actress, and a very bright future ahead. Nyong'o doesn't only make you love her instantly, because of her empathy with the character and exotic beauty, but she also plays a rather complex character flawlessly.

This movie gathers some big screen names and wonderful actors in short roles as Paul Giamatti (American Splendor, Saving Mr. Banks) as Theophilus Freeman, the slaver, Brad Pitt (World War Z) as Samuel Bass, Paul Dano (Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood) as the racist John Tibeats, amongst many others. However, the weight of the movie is carried by Ejiofor's and Fassbender's characters, being the rest of the cast a strong support for the brilliantly made script. The movie doesn't feel slow or dull at all, and the editing was done spectacularly fine, using flashbacks as a valid resource to understand how Northup came in there, remembering thus his life in New York as free man. In that sense, you can see how the character of Solomon develops throughout the movie.

The scenery is beautiful, a mesmerizing contrast from the cruelty and inhumanity of the scenes. The music makes his way, being functional without disturbing you much. The music is vital to describe Solomon Northup's ability to play the fiddle. However, the use of the silence and background sound effects are what really immerse you in the film. The script is really well done, summarizing in two hours – in a very general way of course – his years as a slave, like a reflection of the more than two-hundred years of slavery that at the time was about to end. There are some one-take shots, which are staged finely in long and frenetic sequences, something that only very few experimented actors can achieve successfully, and cleverly accomplished by this cast with the help of Steve McQueen's mastery in the film direction.

Michael Fassbender and director Steve McQueen at the premier in Toronto. Picture by Magnus Manske CC BY-SA 2.0 2)

Why is this movie relevant to you now?

This movie doesn't only picture a barbaric part of US history, but also a cruel reality from today. According to the Walk Free Foundation, almost thirty million people live now in similar conditions as Solomon Northup did in 1841, and of them, around sixty thousand people live today like this in the United States.3) Human Trafficking is nowadays one of the biggest problems around the world, and have been reported by the United Nations as one of “…the top three revenue earners for organized crime, after drugs and arms.4) This is why this movie is very important now than ever: It opens our eyes to the brutal reality of slavery in our present society, at the same time it makes an honest call to stop racism in our lives. The film shows a society based on other human beings' exploitation, justified by religion and promoted by its industry. As a contrast, Solomon came from a society that accepted him as a free man, regarded by his neighbors as an equal. Some people now, as well as the slaver characters in the movie did, live from the exploited work of millions of people around the world, using ideology based on half truths and traditions as a way to manipulate their workforce and to vindicate this practice to themselves and their peers, without being noticed by regular people.

Although it looks horrific to us, this film is not a voyeuristic exercise in morbidness. It is a crude and a hard to look autobiographic experience that shows a reality that moves us deeply inside our hearts, unlike The Passion of the Christ (2004) that used violence and blood just as an excuse to sell tickets.

From this perspective, the movie should be seen by everyone, because of its marvelous acting, and specially for the message it conveys to us, making us reflect about the harsh and horrible reality of slavery. This year's Oscars have a great list of movies, and many good actors will have a though competition. 12 Years a Slave deserves more than an award for what it accomplished in 133 minutes and, hopefully, it will win some. In fact, it already won a BAFTA this year. I really recommend this movie.



Coffin (1853). Scan from book Twelve Years a Slave. (Uploaded by Moondyne) Public Domain, undefined. Picture Available On-line in http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/d/d2/Twelve_Years_a_Slave%2C_p10.jpg/523px-Twelve_Years_a_Slave%2C_p10.jpg
Manske, Magnus (September 6th 2013). Michael Fassbender and Steve McQueen at the premiere of 12 Years a Slave, 2013 Toronto Film Festival. (Uploaded by tm from http://www.flickr.com/photos/tonyshek/9733827582/) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/deed.en)], undefined. Picture Available On-line in http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/00/12_Years_a_Slave_31_%289733827582%29.jpg/800px-12_Years_a_Slave_31_%289733827582%29.jpg
Walk Free Foundation. Global Slavery Index 2013. “Findings”. http://www.globalslaveryindex.org/findings/
Abolition Media (2014) “Modern Slavery Statistics”. http://abolitionmedia.org/about-us/modern-slavery-statistics

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