The multiple Oscar-winner “12 Years a Slave”, is more than just a brilliant movie. Harvard University Professor of History, Henry Gates, described it as “The most vivid and authentic portrayal of American slavery ever captured on screen”.

Brad Pitt was already a household name and less so Chiwetel Ejiofor; but who had heard of Lupita Nyong’o? Their spectacular performances in the film version of “12 years a Slave”, fully deserved the accolades.

The film’s director, Steve McQueen, does not sanitise or gloss over slavery’s horror, but unrelentingly confronts us with the brutality, injustice and unbelievable hypocrisy that lay at the heart of the system. We cannot look away; we cannot deny.

12 Years… is a horror story; though not of the usual genre. It is more disturbing for this was reality; not some grotesque fantasy concocted f or our titillation.

Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List, portrayed life (and ever-present death) in the Nazi concentration camp; laying bar e the pure evil of the holocaust. Similarly 12 Years… probes the depths of human cruelty and injustice.

A Shameful Historical Episode

Facing up to this shameful past can be disconcerting and some Americans might prefer not to know. Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle dismissed the movie as having “the awkwardness and inauthenticity of a foreign-made film about the United States”. Others criticised historical inaccuracies or complained of gratuitous violence.

But these criticisms ar e quite flimsy. This is a real-life story and yes, until abolition in 1865, millions of Africans and Afro-Americans were enslaved in the US.

The brutality and humiliation on plantations are repugnant to modern sensibilities, and their portrayal is unsettling. But they were standard instruments for subjugating slaves so that they would work hard, obey and not flee.

The story of Solomon Northup

The movie is based on the 1854 narrative of Solomon Northup who, as a young musician in New York, was kidnapped and enslaved in Louisiana. Under a regime of terror, he was forced to pick cotton and cut sugarcane on the Bayou Boeuf. For twelve years he was subjected to abuse and humiliation, witnessing even worse inflicted on others.

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays the lead role of Northup. With his rather quaint period dialogue, he is just brilliant. Those expressive eyes that so convincingly conveyed fear, pain and anguish, I’m sure helped win him the Oscar.

Restored Epps plantation home where Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years a Slave, lived. Now located on the Louisiana State University of Alexandria campus. Photo: Lsuaexpert

Restored Epps plantation home where Solomon Northup, author of Twelve Years a Slave, lived. Now located on the Louisiana State University of Alexandria campus. Photo: Lsuaexpert

Plight of Women

The subjugation and degradation of slaves could be especially awful for the women. They were the planter’s ‘property’; he did as he pleased.

Eliza, played by Adepero Oduye, is sold separately from her two little children. She never sees them again.

Then there is the long suffering Patsy; played by Lupita Nyong’o, in her first major cinematic role. McQueen described her as “amazing and an incredible actress”. In her few scenes she was able to convey the absolute pathos of her character.

Patsy’s nemesis, Epps the plantation-owner, played by Michael Fassbender, rapes and beats her savagely. She is a helpless pawn in the domestic conflict between Epps and his disapproving wife Mary; played by Sarah Paulson. Mary wants her husband to sell the girl. But he refuses because she is his best cotton picker. We know however that the drunken lecher has other reasons.

Frustrated and bitter, the jealous wife vents her spleen, not on the real culprit in this triangular affair, but the hapless Patsy; humiliating her and getting her beaten whenever possible. Patsy is a truly tragic figure; she never knew freedom and probably never would. Death was the only escape she could hope for. But Solomon rebuffs her plea to do for her what she was not strong enough to do for herself.

Slavery in America

The US received 388,000 of the ten million African captives who survived the Atlantic crossing, and by the start of the Civil War in 1861, had over four million slaves.

Solomon Northup’s experience though was not typical. His skills as a violinist and handyman earned him recognition on the plantation and increased his value to his “owner”. More importantly he was not doomed to despair. Being held illegally he could hope to, and did eventually, regain his freedom.

After Congress outlawed the “importation” of slaves in 1808, plantations could no longer replace those worked to death or killed. So the existing unpaid labour stock had to be kept alive and fit for work. Commercial interest therefore set limits to mistreatment.

By the 1840’ s, plantation life in the US was still brutal and inhumane. But in general, it was not as appalling as the regimes during the three centuries of enslavement of Africans elsewhere in the Americas. There in slavery’s heyday new arrivals survived just seven years on average.

A sequel coming up! 300 Y ears a Slave? Maybe not; we probably aren’t ready for such trauma.

Slavery’s Impact and Legacy

12 Years… is the first instalment of a truth that must be told; a good start to setting the record straight. As the UK Guardian’s Paul MacInnes put it, “This is not just a great film but a necessary one”.

Viewers are disgusted and maybe even feel shamed by the atrocities. Guilt though rests with the long dead Epps, Tibeats and their ilk, not with subsequent generations who neither enabled nor were complicit.

But slavery has had lingering negative economic and social consequences; prompting Caribbean governments to call for reparations.Slavery generated wealth, enriched the “owners” and their descendants; not the slaves.

More significantly, the system created social structures with attitudes and prejudices to demean the value and human dignity of black people. Even after emancipation, elements of those structures continued, though under different guises. They have influenced the evolution of race relations, disadvantaging blacks, and affecting their prospects and life chances in the US and elsewhere.

Best Picture Producers. From left to right: Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Dede Gardner, Steve McQueen & Brad Pitt. Photo: Helga Esteb

Best Picture Producers. From left to right: Anthony Katagas, Jeremy Kleiner, Dede Gardner, Steve McQueen & Brad Pitt. Photo: Helga Esteb

Significance of 12 Years…

12 Years… sheds light on the great crime of the last millennium that has shaped and distorted our societies and values. It helps us understand and face up to the truth; an essential prerequisite for reversing slavery’s pernicious legacy.


Article by: Edwin Laurent

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