"Slavery is an evil that should befall none," Chiwetel Ejiofor, who outstandingly plays the role of Solomon Northup in 12 Years a Slave, says in the film. Yet for the better part of the Steve McQueen-directed production set in 19th Century USA, he isn’t referred to as "Solomon" but "Platt". That’s because he is kidnapped from Saratoga Springs, New York, shipped to New Orleans, re-named "Platt", which was the identity of an escapee slave from Georgia, then sold into slavery.
Before the kidnapping, Northup was a free man. He was a carpenter who lived with his wife and their two children. But his gift of playing the fiddle cost him his freedom as he accepted an offer from two men who wanted him to perform for two weeks in Washington, DC. Their plan was to instead make him a slave. In New Orleans, Northup is bought by a plantation owner, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) for whom he is an obedient servant. Ford, on the other hand, is a kind master. But on the plantation there is also John Tibeats (Paul Dano), a racist carpenter who dislikes, abuses and is violent with Northup. Northup fights back after an altercation, but there remains too much tension between them; something that leads to Tibeats wanting to lynch Northup. So to help the slave, Ford sells Northup to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a sadistic man who has his slaves lashed if they don’t pick 90kg of cotton every day. As much as Northup and a few other slaves can’t manage to reach that target, a young girl named Patsey, exceptionally played by Lupita Nyong’o, does 226kg each day. She’s referred to as a “nigger among niggers” by Epps for her outstanding cotton-picking ability. Yet Epps takes advantage of Patsey and sexually abuses her. Patsey has to bear this as well as the jealous tantrums of Epp’s wife until she cannot take it any more. She even asks Northup to take her life; something he refuses to do.
Watching 12 Years a Slave, which is based on Northup’s true story, provides an understanding of the inhumanity black people went through as slaves – a topic covered equally well in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad. They are sold like animals and treated worse than them in this highly emotive film. One of the strongest scenes in Steve McQueen’s film has to be the one in which Patsey is whipped because she had been missing for about two hours as other slaves were washing their clothes in a river. She faces down, her wrists tied to the ground. So are her ankles. That Northup, a fellow slave, did part of the thrashing (after Epps and at Epps’ command) makes it even more distressing. This scene is reminiscent of one in Glory in which Denzel Washington, who won an academy award for his supporting role as Private Silas Trip, an ex-slave in the film, gets whipped for going absent without leave from a camp while a Union Army soldier during the American Civil War.
In the twelfth year of his torment – time is not explicitly accounted for in the film though – Northup regains his freedom after he meets a Canadian carpenter and abolitionist, Bass (Brad Pitt) to whom Northup tells his story and asks to contact his friends in New York. Bass does as requested. Later, Cephas Parker, a white man and a supplier of general goods from New York, comes and frees Northup as a defiant Epps and a saddened Patsey look on. For Northup, even though he is accused of being an uncle tom who luxuriates in his master’s favour by fellow slave Eliza (Adepero Oduye), a hope of liberty is something he does not give up. He declares he is simply surviving by offering his talents to his master, and he will “keep up hardy until freedom is opportune”.
He does survive and, in 1853, published 12 Years a Slave, which gave us this beautiful film that openly portrays the tribulations of slavery.