12 Years A Slave: Steve McQueen’s Excruciatingly Brilliant Detail of an Infamous American Era

STEVE McQueen’s cinematic rendition of the thoroughly searing experience of Solomon Northup in 12 Years A Slave left nothing to imagination, and the British-Nigerian actor Chiwetel Ejiofor lived up to the task of capturing Northup’s private trauma, as his life took a dramatic turn from one of relative comfort to another life of naked horror, after he met two seemingly charming gentlemen with whom he assumed he was striking a professional business deal.

A true-life account originally written by Solomon Northup, a free African-American resident of Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853, nothing prepares the unfamiliar viewer for what is to come as the first set of images of a moderately successful African-American family flashes across the screen. The rest of the story pretty much sums up the life of any man of African heritage in the days of antebellum America, where a man may walk his wife and two children outside his decent home to a waiting carriage, only for unexpected circumstances crafted by others to tear him apart from his family for the next 12 years.

Northup could never have imagined his latter experiences following that ill-fated day – after all he was a freeborn, resident up North in the great state of New York, far away from the shackles that would make him another man’s property for many years. By all means he was a fine gentleman who owned property as anybody else did in town, subsisting on his decent livelihood as a classical violinist.

Likewise does a personality as Oprah Winfrey exist today, although in a more powerful position as one of the richest women of her era, until isolated realities deal her a dose of that infamous reality jolt when, say, an attempt to purchase an expensive item at a high-end store meets with random prejudice. While Ms. Oprah’s personal experience barely registered on the Ritcher of Northup’s earthquake-like experience, both experiences mirror each other enough for a cautious comparison.

The first thing that hits the viewer is how easily, or quickly, a black man’s life is transformed from one of relative bliss to another of shock horror. Trouble came to Northup in the same way that it still comes to the typical African-American in today’s America: in fine apparel, backed by a friendly smile and a warm handshake, bellied by a sadistic plan that would alter the victim’s life for the rest of his days.

The rest is often a blur that would test the most grounded of temperaments, as one may find himself wondering what, really, he is worth – much in the same way Solomon Northup probably wondered after he became chattel in 12 Years a Slave, transported like livestock from his free state in New York down to Louisiana, where he was made to slave away in conditions that at once terrified and humbled his already humble self. Only a few months after the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case, the narrative starkly portrays how anything may happen to a black person with little or no repercussions for the masterminds – suggesting that it may not so much be the law that is the buffer against making the black man a target of his aggressors out there [since the law, by accident or design, often favors the aggressor here,] but the fact that good people exist to dissuade bad people.

Yet no matter how much goodness, or good people, exist in our realities, bad things happen, and will continue to happen in various shades and in difference places, often under the guise of following religious scripture – which is a popular tableau upon which many sickening desires and prejudices have been executed for the time that religion has existed in human civilization. A scene in 12 Years a Slave showed the sadistic slaveholder, Edwin Epps, reading from the Christian scripture at Luke 12:47, to what was supposed to be a Christian gathering of his family and slaves thus: “And that servant, which knew his lord’s will, and prepared not himself, neither did according to his will, shall be beaten with many stripes.”

[Of course the slaves also seek respite and hope from the same Christian scriptures which their slaveholders use to condemn them to a life of hardship, singing out the words while they tilled the fields and picked the cotton in the burning southern sun].

For the cynical mind, the movie reinforces the notion that slavery and its consequences never truly ended for the African-American – that what exists today is a throwback to the expression about things remaining the same, even as changes continue to occur; that slavery did not end as much as the face of slavery changed. The same cynical eye sees today’s ‘plantations’ as the corporations for which most people work, with just a negligible amount of citizens existing and making a living outside of these so-called plantations. For them, the life of those who reside within the plantation may be different in quality, but it takes just one unexpected 'Northup Experience' to turn a man from uppity negro to raggedy negro.

Indeed one Northrop-like experience, even today, might be all it takes to turn the subtle differences between the life of the African-American and his Caucasian counterpart into stark differences.

Steve McQueen’s work in 12 Years A Slave tops a legion of efforts at the pictorial documentation of an infamous American era. While recent works like Quentin Tarantino’s Django registered its impact with those who live for Tarantino’s brand of fictitious but engaging dialogue marinated in vengeful blood and gore, and others as Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln, about this same era, made their impact with people desirous of the depiction of the politics along the way to Emancipation Proclamation and beyond, Steve McQueen’s masterpiece singled out one man’s real life experience in excruciatingly brilliant detail.

McQueen could not have found a more natural vessel than Chiwetel Ejiofor to communicate the raw emotional turmoil that Solomon Northup endured for the dozen years that his ordeal lasted. The emotional reunion between Northrop and his family, after his previous master traveled down to free him from the hellish experience under the brutish slaveholder Edwin Epp, to whom Northrop was resold, is an irresistible tearjerker. Of course his freedom came after a second risky attempt at contacting his old slave master; the first attempt failed after he sought the help of an untrustworthy white employee of his boss to get the letter he wrote with raspberry juice, in a pen he carved, across to his old boss.

Quintessentially antebellum American, the movie shunned sensitivities and insecurities to portray a brutally honest account of the experience of one man whose story tells that of many men like him. Yet Mr. Northup’s experience of a happy ending was rarely the norm for many slaves of the era and beyond, as most African-Americans were not only born into slavery [unlike him, who was born free], but many also never lived to taste the freedom he once took for granted. There is also the tragedy of the case of those who were torn from their homelands across the oceans to be shipped far away from their culture and heritage for life, never to locate family or ancestral homeland for generations, if ever.

The horrors of Northup’s experience pale away when compared to those.

Within Solomon Northup’s horror story of kidnap and slavery, however, resides a story of strength and determination in the face of horrific adversity. Northup’s ability to shift, from a state of initial bewilderment about his kidnapping, to a state of steely but barely noticeable resolve, is a lesson in endurance and perseverance. And lead actor Chiwetel Ejiofor did a sterling job in channeling the initial shock, and the subsequent pain, along with the indescribable admixture of feelings that coursed through Solomon Northup when he stood before his family upon his return. Grand-child in hand, Northup struggled to mutter just two words, ‘I’m sorry,’ amid his gut-wrenching sobs and reddened, teary eyes.

That’s the point I noticed the tear in my right eye trickle down as well. I think.