Solomon Northup, the central figure in 12 Years a Slave, was a real person, a freedman of New York who was kidnapped while on a business trip to Washington, D.C., and sold into slavery. Northup recounted the experience in his book, 12 Years a Slave, published in 1853. His real life story is almost more incredible than this new film can contain.
The story centers on Northup’s slavery, and the acting is sure to vacuum up awards, chiefly Chiwetel Ejiofor’s portrayal of Northup. The film (rated R for violence/cruelty, some nudity, and brief sexuality) is excruciatingly graphic and violent; unrelenting abuse after abuse after abuse. We see lynchings, rape, and many beatings. We see how much African-Americans have forgiven and also the echoes of that abuse: the families torn apart, the prison bars, the enforced illiteracy.
Many slave owners take possession of Northup, almost too many to track. Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) is one who takes center stage, the embodiment of cruelty. He rapes one slave regularly and beats the rest mercilessly, almost to death. But the film is adept in showing the line between good and evil cutting through every human heart. One slave owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) tries to be kind to his slaves, and another white man (Brad Pitt) tells Epps he will face judgment for the injustice of owning slaves. And then Northup finds himself compromising his own values in order to survive, once in a jarring sex scene at the opening and again when he whips a fellow slave.
As I was leaving the screening, I overheard a woman describe the movie as “gratuitous” and “heavy handed.” I discussed this assessment with my friend who saw the film with me. She brought up The Passion of the Christ, which some considered gratuitously violent but which she considered appropriate for the subject material. Twelve Years is shatteringly awful, over the top in certain scenes, but the starkest depiction I’ve ever seen of the evil of slavery.