Twelve Years A Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013) – A free black man from upstate New York, Solomon Northup is abducted and sold into slavery.
A difficult but necessary viewing, Twelve Years A Slave narrates a gut-wrenching account of the brutal slavery regime amongst many untold.
Born a free man, Solomon Upnorth (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was cruelly stripped of his liberty when a pecuniary crime threw him into a very different world of hardship and despair. Sold into thralldom for twelve weary years, he was one of very few slaves to ever regain his freedom.
Twelve Years A Slave is a rare first-hand slavery narrative. Upnorth relates his fight for survival and the lasting struggle of many he knew, whose only transgression was the colour of their skin. Detailing his time spent with three plantation owners of varying temperaments, he reveals the vivid horrors of a society that upheld the enslavement of human beings and raised men to believe in its necessity.
In his third movie, Steve McQueen again hangs a dark eclipse over verdant pasture and blue skies painted with artful grace. Daring one to delve into difficult truths, his unflinching stories are not always easy to swallow.
His every work is an unyielding exploration into the darkest recesses of human mind and capacity. Scenes linger long after the final frame, pushing us to question and learn about the men at its core, be it the doer or the afflicted.
Chiwetel Ejiofor puts forth a powerful portrayal of Solomon’s fate, wavering between tearful grief and stubborn grit. Held in bondage by various slavers throughout his long ordeal, he makes compromises if only to live. He holds on to his slipping dignity, best that he could in heartfelt honesty.
This is not just his story. Therein lies a powerful and deeply moving chapter of Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o). Ripped of her sovereignty, the young woman stands strong in face of unjust abuse at the hands of lust and jealousy. To watch her being left behind when Solomon eventually leaves is heartbreaking. It is a harrowing reminder of just how many continued to suffer mockery and dehumanisation from cradle to grave.
The crack of whips gradually breaks their spirit and body under the scorching sun. Paddles and cat-o’-ninetails sear skin open and leave lacerations atop scars, no part left untouched. There is nothing held back, and what strikes the most is not its degree of violence. It is the reality of those deplorable acts that had befallen so many in the past.
Rarely does the mood becalm in the difficult watch. The closing fact that the men were never brought to justice makes it even harder so. Such is the unrelenting candidness of Solomon Upnorth’s story, retold by Steve McQueen’s gripping images that lash out with harsh and indelible strength in both atrocity and significance.
A film may not come close to make us experience the pain as it truly was. But the power of cinema lies in its ability to evoke awareness and stir fruitful discussion. Twelve Years A Slave makes for necessary viewing, not to rouse guilt, blame or indignation. Rather, it is essential to provoke remembrance and reflection upon the shameful past in order to move beyond.