He hangs dangling from the tree. The thick cord of the noose is taut against his throat. The tips of his feet, just barely scraping the worn earth, allow him small intakes of breath. Arms tied behind his back, with neither foot finding a firm purchase on the ground, he must do all he can to stay upright. An unknown amount of time passes and he is till there, shuffling on desperate tiptoes. Back-and-forth, back-and-forth—a strange fruit moving in the Louisiana breeze.
The scene is drawn out for what seems like hours and the audience can do nothing but watch as each time his tapping feet manage to find enough ground to sustain himself.
The dangling man is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), recently given the slave-name Platt. In another life he was a free man. A husband, a father and a talented violinist with a home in Saratoga, New York, he never imagined he would one day be kidnapped and sold into slavery, fighting to survive the choking, life-threatening grasp of a noose in the Louisiana sun.
This achingly powerful film was pieced together by British film director Steve McQueen alongside screenwriter John Ridley. Together, their translation of the 1853 memoir was transformed into the emotional imagery that leaves you captivated by the screen and utterly incapable of looking away, no matter how much you may wish to. McQueen, known for his “unflinching approach to filmmaking,” presented the cruelty inherent to this story with explicit clarity, willing to go further into the truth of slavery than any slavery-related movie before. With the help of the talented performances of Chiwetel Ejiofor and Lupita Nyong’o and accompanied by familiar names like Michael Fassbender and Brad Pitt, McQueen has created a lasting and altogether haunting portrayal of the black experience in this time period, a nightmare of injustice and violence.
When Solomon first wakes up in the darkness of his cell after being kidnapped, hands and feet clasped in steel chains, it can be nothing but a bad dream to him. The moment is one of surprising stillness: no movement, no dramatic music, no anguished dialogue. A drawn-out close-up of Solomon’s face as he absorbs his situation is all that is needed. You are drawn to his eyes; in them, his soul is laid bare and you can see the despair, the disbelief, the horror.
The sweeping silences throughout the film force you to fully absorb everything you see, to feel the moment as Solomon feels it. You will not look away. You cannot look away.
And perhaps forcing us to look is just what we needed.
“12 Years a Slave,” based off of the true story of Solomon Northup, recounts the horrors of slavery like no other before it; it is the “Schindler’s List” of American cruelty, laying down in brutal honesty what should have been laid down long before.
In America today, too many prefer to sweep any mention of our nation’s brutally racist past under the metaphorical rug. Disappointingly, denial is a prevalent attitude toward this part of America’s history. Some would even like to pretend it never happened at all.
In 2010, for instance, Texas revised its public school curriculum to downplay the cruel realities of slavery. And just last year, Tea Party activists in Tennessee sought to remove references to slavery and any mention of the country’s founders being slave-owners entirely from school curriculum.
God forbid our textbooks have any historical honesty.
Of course, it’s somewhat understandable not to want to teach children how slave-owners routinely raped their slaves, how they whipped and beat and hanged them by the thousands. That being said, it’s one thing to shelter a child from the horrors of the world, but trying to wipe out 246 years of history, horrific or not, is a whole different story.
Whether it’s denial, delusion or pure and simple ignorance, “12 Years a Slave” puts to rest any misconceptions you might have about this time period. It does not downplay the horrendous, often gruesome reality of a slave.
In one scene, a slave named Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), an object of obsession for deranged slave-owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), is stripped naked and tied to a post to be repeatedly whipped. The lash cuts deep into her skin, spraying blood with every blow, until the white meat of her back is on sickening display.
It’s not hard to imagine why some might argue that the movie is too violent, that there are too many atrocities, too many whippings and beatings. But in order to understand the depth of the crime that slavery represented, and that this movie tried to depict, these scenes of brutality are crucial.
Indeed, if a Nevada lawmaker can say that he would “vote for slavery if that’s what [his] constituents wanted,” then “12 Years a Slave” could not have come at a better time.
This film gives America a chance to finally understand its past and become better because of it.