Saturday, November 2, 2013

12 Years A Slave: Solomon Chained

American history is filled with chapters that aren't easy to look at. That includes the years before the Civil War, where the nation had to deal with slavery and its treatment of African-Americans.

This chapter hasn't been seen too often: a free Black from New York state meets two men who promise him a job, but actually sell him to slavery. This was the story of Solomon Northup, who was 12 Years A Slave between 1841 and 1853, well before the Civil War and even the Dred Scott Decision. It's the basis of a fantastic drama starring Chiwetel Ejiofor. It's now in more than 400 screens a couple of months after its premiere at Telluride, and may get more later this month.

The movie begins with Northup as part of a gang of sugar cane harvesters. It seems to be a typical day of hard work and little food. Then we see him try to write something. We see he is not a typical slave. He was once a fiddler, a husband, and a father in Saratoga, New York in 1841. He is treated like anyone else. Then, he meets two men, Hamilton and Brown, who promise him a lucrative job in Washington. Instead, he wakes up in chains, and is told he's a runaway slave. He tries to identify himself, but without proof, he has lost his identity and even his name. The movie makes it clear that even a Free Black's status can be taken away by losing his papers, just because of his skin.

The movie, directed by Steve McQueen, doesn't pull any punches on how slaves were treated. Seeing some of the slaves whipped is a painful experience. Showing how they were sold, even nude, to people is even more shocking. When Paul Giamatti as Freeman presents slaves for sale, it's almost as if he's a used car salesman.

Northup, now called Platt, is sold to Shaw (Benedict Cumberbatch), who seems to be reasonable. However, Tibeats (Paul Dano) takes a disliking to Platt, mainly because he's smarter than Tibeats. Platt is later sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender), who is a cruel master, and sometimes has sex with Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o), a field slave. How his wife Mary (Sarah Paulson) deals with this fact is even more disturbing. She doesn't like what Epps is doing, but she doesn't really stop him. In her mind, it's also Patsey's fault.

Through the years, Platt does what he can to survive and find a way to escape back north. As the years go by, that determination slowly breaks down. When he's with Shaw, he thinks his experience in building the Champlain Canal may make him a valuable part of the plantation. Tibeats does what he can to end that idea. In Epps' plantation, Platt is slowly broken down. Seeing his face in full despair is something you don't forget.

He does get some hope thanks to Bass (Brad Pitt), a Canadian carpenter. Even if Platt regains his true identity, he may still lose valuable things he'll never get back.

This movie has been touted as a possible favorite for Best Picture come Oscar time, but 12 Years A Slave isn't an easy movie to see. It is still worth watching. It shows a piece of American history that's not discussed very often, but should be to remind us how we've advanced.
Ejiofor is the best. His abilities as an actor has been getting a lot of notice from this movie and the Starz mini-series, Dancing on the Edge. Fans of the sci-fi movie Serenity, though, already know. Fassbender is chilling as Epps, who says he can do anything to his "property", even force Platt to do an unspeakable thing. Nyong'o is also great as Patsey, someone who has made some unpleasant decisions to survive. Cumberbatch is also good, showing that not all slaveowners were bad. At least he recognized Platt was not a typical slave.

It also shows the race for Best Actor might wind up as an endurance race. Ejiofor does through a lot of physical and emotional abuse in this movie. Tom Hanks battles pirates and their treatment in Captain Phillips. Matthew McConaughey loses a lot of weight to be an unlikely AIDS activist in Dallas Buyers Club, and Robert Redford battles disaster on the high seas alone in All Is Lost. It'll be one interesting awards season.

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