My Thoughts on ’12 Years A Slave’
By Veronica Nkwocha
‘12 Years a Slave’ (Directed by Steve McQueen) feels like one is going into a hole, deeper and deeper into an abyss. The dark is cloying and the damp draining every spring within to merge with the tumultuous grey and wet of the Mississippi.
‘12 Years a Slave’ is the story of Solomon Northup played with aplomb by Chiwetel Ejiofor, a free black man from New York in 19th century America. A family man, his jaunty step as he strolls with his wife, son and daughter speak of hope, life and prosperity. He is a violinist, an excellent one. Things go ‘south’ when he is lured under false pretences to Washington for some work, kidnapped and then sold into slavery.
Solomon Northup sheds the garments of a fine gentleman and dons the toga of a slave, from then on, he must answer to the name Platt Hamilton.
Stripped of everything, there is nothing sexual about the nudity and we cover our eyes in shame, embarrassed for the slaves who have to wash in front of others. The dehumanising is thorough and the trembling obeisance that colours nearly every slave is infectious killing any semblance of rebellion.
In Louisiana, the flowers are mute and the surrounding plains of the cotton field are joyless even though there is a song for every scythe that hits the cane. Solomon is wide eyed almost throughout as though he cannot yet believe his new circumstances, even years after.
There aren’t many moments of happiness and life carries on. He leaves a near benevolent master (who even gifts him a violin) where he almost becomes a fatality, almost hanged after a falling out with overseer John Tibeats (Paul Dano). He is sold on to a ‘religious’ Edwin Epps. His new master reads the scriptures as though he believes them even though we catch him making up verses. Michael Fassbender is thoroughly believable and we watch as Epps attacks his role with glee. He is seemingly bumbling yet extremely faithful to the commonly held ideas of a vicious slave master.
Epps’ music by the slaves for his entertainment show a ‘disconnect’ on his part, he is the only one happy and excited as the slaves dance a pretend merriment. His missus (Sarah Paulson) is not pleased; what is there to be jealous of in Patsey? Played by Lupita Nyong’o, she is unwashed, enjoys no perks for being the masters bed mate, favours which he takes mercilessly.
Mrs Epps pristine appearance mirrors her halo wound so very tight, she looks like she has a perpetual headache. It is not a surprise when she declares her own bed is too holy for him. Her simmering rage does not discriminate, the rapist and the victim are fair game for her wrath. We would feel some compassion for her if she didn’t end up looking like she needed penance for her part. Patsey is the broken reed, bruised but waving in the breeze, flowing with the current unable to put an end to it all.
The master’s chat with Bass (Brad Pitt) is illuminating, sound bites and clichés take on new meaning as they are held under the harsh light of an anti-slaver’s scrutiny. Bass is eventually trusted with the buried secret as Solomon tries one last time, would he take a message home?
We hardly see Solomon’s family after the first moments in the movie and we never know how they reacted once they found out he was gone. In not knowing, we are cast into Solomon’s reality, the wall separating him from his loved ones is resolute, impenetrable.
The movie ends in an anti-climax. One is reaching for a happy ending and when the homecoming happens, it all ends suddenly. We are left hungry for more. We want to share in the redemption, in their celebration. We are robbed of the ecstasy that would otherwise have been a catharsis to the intense ordeal of Solomon Northup’s 12 years as a slave.