In 1852, the novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin (or Life Among the Lowly)” by Harriet Beecher Stowe was published for the first time. It was like pouring gasoline over the already raging argument over slavery in the U.S. 11 years earlier, Solomon Northrup was a free man living a good life in Saratoga, NY. He played the violin and worked at other skilled professions to earn a living. He was married with two children. Then he was kidnapped and sold into slavery in the South. He would remain there until being freed a dozen years later. Then he wrote his own book, “12 Years A Slave” which also became a bestseller. However, while the novel is very well known in this era, the story of Solomon Northrup was virtually unknown. Until his book was made into an outstanding film.
Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an incredible performance as Solomon Northrup. The film opens with his wife Anne (Kelsey Scott) going away for a couple of weeks with their two children. As loose ends, Solomon is given an intriguing offer. Join up with Brown (Scoot McNairy) and Hamilton (Taran Killiam). They are entertainers and they propose to pay Solomon a princely sum for playing his violin.
But on their last night together they drug Solomon and he awakens in chains. Held in a slave pen in Washington, D.C. he is beaten mercilessly until he agrees not to reveal his true identity. From that point forward he is “Platt”, an escaped slave. He is shocked and horrified by the degradation and mistreatment of other slaves, and has no idea what is yet to come.
His first owner, William Ford (Bennedict ) recognizes that Solomon is a man of intelligence and skills and he shows favor to him; upsetting the carpenter he employs. Tibeats (DPaul ano) resents the growing relationship between owner and slave and does everything he can to undermine it. Eventually their conflict forces Ford to sell Solomon to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Solomon’s life spirals downward as his new owner is at the extreme edge of cruel masters. But he never stops trying to find a way home.
For director Steve McQueen, clearly the third feature’s a charm. He managed to obtain the best from every actor in his cast. His deft touch at using a limited amount of music beneath his visual presentation results in the emotional impact being enhanced rather than injected. Ejiofor stands out in a cast of standout performances. It helped having talented actors like Cumberbatch, Dano, Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Giamatti and Brad Pitt in front of his camera. Expect to see several of them as part of the awards season equation this year.
Like Schindler’s List before it, 12 Years A Slave manages to capture as much of the horrific nature of what the lives of the victims endured as it can without becoming unwatchable. The violence is there to show what that kind of life was like, rather that satisfy the salacious nature of those who enjoy such things. While some of it is difficult to watch, it is definitely a must-see movie.