Twelve Years a Slave
134 Minutes, Rated R for almost everything that was done to black people in the USA in the Old South.
Fair Value of 12 Years a Slave: $40.00. This is a movie that America deserves. I’d force every inhabitant of this country to watch this. Along with Network, Dead Man, and McCabe and Mrs. Miller this is one of the best films to explain what America is.
The Beauty of the Antebellum South: Rape of whimpering woman in mid-night, the men forced to stand mute witness. Children forced screaming from mothers. Beatings until the bat breaks. Giant red rents festering on black backs as the cotton-worms crawl. That old Dixie charm, y’all.
The true history of the USA is the history of increasingly sophisticated forms of coerced labor. From 1619 to 1709, the colonies used indentured servants, where debtors of all color were held in bondage. From 1709 to 1781, America used a mixture of black slaves and British/Irish convicts that were transported. Most Americans forget that one of the causes of the American Revolution was that we were tired of being England’s minimum-security prison (and what happened after the Revolution? Why good old Australia, that’s what!). From 1782 to 1865, we famously relied on slaves. Then there was abolition, during which the masters returned to the advantages of a mixed system of sharecroppers and immigrant labor (you can play them off of one another). We relied on Jim Crow largely from 1866 to 1965. And then from 1965 to 2005 we started the Bracero era in full, where we relied upon Mexican and Central American migrants who had no legal status (and therefore no rights. And from 2005 on ward, America has become a shining beacon of liberty, because we now use convict labor and outsourcing.
Yes, we are a more enlightened nation, for where we once chose our slaves on the basis of melanin levels, we now enslave on the basis of poor choices in pharmaceutical recreation, vague allegations of racist constables, and paid informants. I concede that America has progressed, but that’s really in terms of dropping maybe 1 or 2 Hitlers on the evil scale, where Hitler is a unit of measurement (11 million people died in the Atlantic slave trade).
You’re laying the white guilt on pretty thick. Well it was shoveled down my throat, so I’m going to regurgitate some at you.
Musician Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a middle class free New Yorker who makes the fatal error of getting drunk in Washington DC. He wakes up in rags at a slaver’s auction house. And who would believe that a black man is anything other than a slave? Solomon and several other free blacks (mostly children abducted from their homes) are shipped to Louisiana. At first, he is kept as the property of William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is a benign slave master. That means he preaches at the slaves on Sundays, sells them only to cover his debts, and only lets them hang on their tip toes for only a few days. Then Solomon is sold to Epps (Michael Fassbender). Epps is a drunken, lurching hypocrite, exulting in his mastery and ever-ready with an old testament quote to justify his cruelty. Those who fail to meet a daily quota of 200 lbs of cotton are whipped. He’s in love with the slave Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), so, of course, he has Solomon flay her to death while he and his Southern Belle wife look on.
In his travails, Solomon makes the occasional effort to escape or rebel, and each effort leads to another vignette about the horrors of the slave system. A comrade tries to interrupt a rape of a mother and gets gutted. Solomon wanders off the road, thinking of escape, and walks right into the lynching of two apprehended runaways. The recurring trope is that Solomon tries some new approach, which backfires, and he ends up even more oppressed and tortured for his efforts to fight the system.
Why would I subject myself to viewing all this pain and misery? I’m not going to give you the line about how we need to know slavery was bad. People knew slavery was bad in the days of Moses, and that’s 33 centuries ago. Do you know how slavery got started in America? Bartolome de la Casas convinced Cuba to adopt it in order to prevent the total genocide of the Caribbean people (in fact, slavery only delayed their extinction by 100 years or so). That’s right, slavery got started in the west because it was mildly better than genocide.
No, this film isn’t going to make you a better human being. Why would you want to be a human being, given the option? We talk about ‘crimes against humanity’ and ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ as a desperate action of psychological displacement. The face of humanity Is Auschwitz, Tuol Sleng (Cambodia), Ra’s Al-Uin (Armenia). The genociders weren’t aliens, robots, or rabid wolves- they are the common man.
You should watch this film to remember who you’re surrounded by. The genetic scum, who, given permission, would trade you, torture you, kill you for making the mistake of briefly appearing more intelligent than they are. Hell, I’m one of them. My ancestors ran plantations in Asheville, North Carolina. And I do not pretend that I have some superior shred of moral fiber that would deter me, were I in their context. I’m sure I’d invent rationalizations and justifications and arguments for necessity, just as much as they did.
You need to be smart and civil and patient and socially active because you live on a planet whose pace and parity is set by sociopathic assholes. Keep it in mind at all times: society is run by, and for the benefit, of utter sociopaths. Kindness is a veneer of luxury, an indulgence of ego. You are a prisoner on the planet of the murder monkeys.
What is the value of a man? A miserable pile of secrets! 12 Years of a Slave is an epic of degradation, a film in which the protagonist is taught through brutality to conceal and abandon his every characteristic. He is beaten into silence. He must hide his ability to read. He gives up his mannered Yankee way of speech, and his fiddle. Nothing is enough. One of the most memorable scenes in the film is when Solomon has to bury on older slave who collapsed of exhaustion. The other Southern slaves break into “Roll Jordan Roll”, an old spiritual. At first, Solomon is trying to remain silent and respectful, mourning the man as one might in Yankee protestant society- quiet and solemn. But as the chorus swells, he breaks down and joins in, though not without a mix of confusion and self-loathing as he compromises his internal identity.
Lupita Nyong’o also stands out in her performance as Patsey. Her beauty allows her to become the master’s mistress, and for a brief while she gets to enjoy a genteel life. But Mrs. Epps (Sarah Paulson) makes it clear that she must be made as disposable as all the other blacks, and so she is steadily scarred and deformed by Mrs. Epps. The whole sick love triangle between Mr. Epps, Mrs. Epps, and Patsey is the most compelling sub-plot, a fascinating study about how the social roles of a plantation system caused people to be monsters to one another simply for the sake of avoiding awkward conversations.
The one boll weevil in the pickings is Brad Pitt, as the liberal minded Mr. Bass. It’s not just the matter of his glamour and star power, thought that’s a factor; his character is just too much of a deus ex machina, too unsullied a saint, to be credible. He talks with the values and sensibilities of a modern liberal, and that’s far too anachronistic. And so the film botches the denouement into a facile story-book ending. But until that beneficent deliverance by a wandering Canadian, this film is a masterful diorama of human miseries.
Sure, it’s based on a true story. And as the post-script before the credit rightly says, the real Solomon Northup turned his ordeal into a best-selling book and became a major figure in the abolition movement. But don’t forget what they omitted from that uplifting post-script with the Hans Zimmer accompaniment:
Solomon Northup disappeared in Boston in 1857. It is widely believed that he was kidnapped, and either murdered or forced back to slavery in the deep South.