By Daniel Garrett
12 Years a Slave
Based on the book Twelve Years A Slave by Solomon Northup,
and written for the screen by John Ridley
Directed by Steve McQueen
Produced by River Road, Plan B, New Regency, Film 6
Fox Searchlight, 2013
Discipline, Intelligence, and Creative Skill are Transcendent Qualities in a Torturous Life
There were the highest expectations for the film 12 Years a Slave, the motion picture about the enslavement of Africans in America by the black British visual artist and film director Steve McQueen. Known for his imaginative and rigorous sensibility Steve McQueen, the son of Caribbean parents, was born in Ealing, England, and attended the Chelsea College of Art & Design, and the University of London’s Goldsmiths College, before making the films Hunger (2008), about the prison hunger strike of Irish Revolutionary Army activist Bobby Sands, and Shame (2011), abut loneliness and sexuality, both featuring the actor Michael Fassbender. With screen writer John Ridley, a lover of international culture, and a writer of fiction as well as film, McQueen worked on 12 Years a Slave, focused on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free northern black man who was captured, beaten, and brought to Louisiana to work enslaved. Steve McQueen and John Ridley have not disappointed; and the film has beauty, thought, and power, and won critical and popular acclaim and the American cinema industry’s highest honor, its academy award—an Oscar. In the great newspaper of the nation’s capital, The Washington Post (October 17, 2013), the film critic Ann Hornaday said of the film, “Intense, unflinching, bold in its simplicity and radical in its use of image, sound and staging, 12 Years a Slave in many ways is the defining epic so many have longed for to examine—if not cauterize — America’s primal wound. But it’s also a crowning achievement of a filmmaker whose command of the medium extends beyond mere narrative and its reductive, sentimental snares to encompass the full depth and breadth of its most expressive and transforming properties. 12 Years a Slave isn’t just a cathartic experience that happens to be an astonishing formal achievement: It works its emotional power precisely because it’s so elegantly constructed, from the inside out.”
Solomon Northup was a man of gifts but he was one man among many. Negroes arrived in America with Spanish explorers, as they had been sailors and soldiers in Spain and Portugal. Some Negroes were indentured servants; but in the seventeenth century the enslavement of Africans would take root in America and grow with the encouragement of the British King, George III. Black men would fight on the side of the American colonies in the revolutionary war (1775-1783) against the British, the war for independence, but the resulting country’s written Constitution would count the enslaved being as only three-fifths of a person. The work of black men, women, and children would be one of the great foundations of American industry, especially in agriculture (such as cotton and sugar); and the economy would be built with and on the backs of blacks. Enslaved Africans and African-Americans were prized assets, used as the basis of mortgages and bonds. Negro Americans were forbidden from organization, self-defense, and education; and prohibited from voting and taking on certain kinds of skilled work. There were about two-and-a-half million enslaved persons in the United States in 1840; and more than three million in 1850. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 inaugurated the kidnapping of free blacks, as well as the return to chains and whipping posts of those who had escaped. However, despite almost everything against them, some African-Americans managed to prosper as free people and even as the enslaved: some were helped by other Negroes, free and enslaved, and some were helped abolitionists and groups like the Friends Society. Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner attempted revolution. Harriet Tubman escaped bondage and helped others become free. It is forgotten, too often, that some struggling southern white farmers were against slavery (they may have felt empathy for the thankless toil—as well as recognized the disadvantage slavery provided themselves in relation to large, slave-holding landowners). In the civil war between the American north and south (1861-1865), southerners felt no shame getting blacks to do work that supported the racist war efforts, provoking President Lincoln toward emancipation and allowing northern black enlistment in the war to preserve the union that would free them. One of the most eloquent—descriptive, honest, intelligent, moral, and sometimes witty—testimonies about what enslavement meant can be found in Solomon Northup’s memoir, Twelve Years A Slave, in which a free northern Negro recounts his capture in 1841 and enslavement in the American south until January 1853, a book published, with the help of lawyer and poet David Wilson, in 1853 by Henry W. Derby and associates, in Auburn, Buffalo, and Cincinnati; and republished in 1968 in an edition edited with an introduction by scholars Sue Eakin and Joseph Logsdon, from Louisiana University Press. The bookTwelve Years A Slave contains an editor’s preface by David Wilson, and Northup’s twenty-two eloquent chapters, with appendices and index; and it—a work that by telling the truth demolishes all kinds of clichés about the nature of gender and race—makes for compelling, rewarding reading.
“Having all my life breathed the free air of the North, and conscious that I possessed the same feelings and affection that find a place in the white man’s breast; conscious, moreover, of an intelligence equal to that of some men, at least, with a fairer skin, I was too ignorant, perhaps, too independent, to conceive how any one could be content to live in the abject condition of a slave,” Solomon Northup states early in his testament Twelve Years A Slave (page 10). Solomon Northup’s book is supported by the historical record (affidavits, bills of sale, newspaper articles, and court transcripts). It is a book of difficult experiences but it is not difficult reading. It is strangely enriching: Solomon Northup describes the intelligence, emotion, skill, and wisdom of the people he meets, distinguished personalities, some enslaved, some free, as well as the cruelty of his experiences. Solomon describes the fateful men he met in Saratoga Springs, one about forty, the other no more than twenty-five, men who tell Solomon they seek music for circus performances, enticing him with the money to be made. Solomon Northup travels with them from Saratoga Springs to Albany to New York to Philadelphia to Baltimore to Washington, D.C., but they only perform once—in Albany, a performance that did not impress Solomon, but Solomon is generously compensated for his time. In Washington, they bring Solomon to saloons and offer him drinks and he is soon ill, with headache and nausea and thirst, and he wakes to find himself in chains. He is stripped and beaten with a paddle and whip: “My sufferings I can compare with nothing else than the burning agonies of hell!” (page 25). Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave presents a contemplative portrait of his transport from Washington to Virginia to New Orleans; his purchase by planter William Ford; his conflict with carpenter John Tibeats; the cultivation of cotton and cane, and the making of white and brown sugar; the punishment of the enslaved, with and without cause (twenty-five to five-hundred lashes); the commonness of fighting in white southern life; music as social entrée, personal pleasure, spiritual consolation, and a money-making endeavor; his own time as a slave driver (a driver is mostly a coach and time-keeper, though sometimes a whipper too; and an overseer is a policeman and punisher—and Northup would pantomime whipping); and how he experimented making inks for writing, and made an ink from boiled maple bark; and the effort of Solomon Northup’s wife Anne Hampton Northup and acquaintances Henry Northup and John Waddill to find and free him.
The director Steve McQueen has turned the book Twelve Years A Slave into the film 12 Years a Slave, interpreting Solomon Northup’s story with accuracy, exquisite craft, and significant understanding. What makes 12 Years A Slave remarkable are the consciousness, skill, and experience of Solomon Northup, his being an embodiment not of potential but of actual value—value (valued formed by liberty, knowledge, accomplishment, and family relations) that was denied by those who captured him. Solomon Northup’s consciousness and fundamental value are at the center of 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, with a script by John Ridley informed by the events and insights from Solomon Northup’s memoir, and the aesthetic contributions of production designer Adam Stockhausen, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt, and editor Joe Walker. It is a laudable adaptation by Ridley, whose novels are Stray Dogs (1997) and The Drift (2002) and What Fire Cannot Burn (2006), and who has worked on the films Three Kings (1999) and Undercover Brother (2002): there are few changes of detail, and those that exist do not violate the ideas or spirit of the book. It is the second audio-visual interpretation of Northup’s recollections: Gordon Parks directed a well-received version for television in 1984, called Solomon Northup’s Odyssey—also known as Half Slave, Half Free—starring Avery Brooks as Solomon, for the National Endowment for the Humanities and PBS. Television used to provide more of an educational service: and, television projects that focused on the enslavement of Africans and their quest for freedom include the celebrated series Roots, which premiered in 1977, a story of history and family; and A Woman Called Moses (1978), with Cicely Tyson as Harriet Tubman. Some of the theatrical films about American slavery are Amistad, Beloved, Glory, Jefferson in Paris, Mandingo, Nightjohn, Ride with the Devil, and Sankofa. The most noteworthy motion pictures are probably Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993), about a modern African-American model who is transported to the past and slavery; Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn (1996), a work focused on a black girl on a southern plantation who wants to learn to read despite its being forbidden, a film that I saw in a Manhattan theater (it has been screened at various festivals), although it first was conceived for and shown on television; Jonathan Demme’s Beloved (1998), an interpretation of Toni Morrison’s significant novel, focused on a woman haunted by slavery and the murderous choices she felt compelled to make; and Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil (1999), a view of partisan conflicts at the time of the civil war, presenting a rather unique perspective of slavery—not only that of the slaveholders but of a black character who fights with the slavers (he has a white brother and is fighting to protect him). Yet, two older films, aesthetically important and politically conservative—D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Victor Fleming’s Gone with the Wind (1939)—continue to cast large shadows. 12 Years a Slave may be the most truthful, most important, film of all.
Like Haile Gerima’s Sankofa and Charles Burnett’s Nightjohn, Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave puts the most brutal facts of enslavement at its center. With a sense of history and affirmation of the metaphysical, the film Sankofa tells the story of a modern woman, Mona (Oyafunmike Ogunlano), who visits a Ghana site that had been a slave pen, and is sent back to the past as the enslaved woman Shola by a griot-priest named Sankofa (Kofi Ghanaba); and it is a past—on a Louisiana plantation—that includes indifference to human feeling, and a branding, shackling violence, and self-deceiving religious justifications, as well as the courage of those beleaguered. Haile Gerima, an Ethiopian-American, had made the mid-1970s film Bush Mama and the more recent Teza(2008), the latter set in Ethiopia and Germany, and he has been associated with artists such as Julie Dash and Charlie Burnett (Bush Mama and Burnett’s Killer of Sheep are both set in Watts, Los Angeles, and are about struggling people). Sankofa was a memorable work for those who appreciate black cinema. “Gerima and his film are emblematic of how important it is for people of color to tell their own stories, which is not to deny that a number of significant films about blacks have in fact been made by whites. But so much of the African experience is horrific to the point of absurdity that it takes a strong African aesthetic, steeped in cultural and spiritual awareness, to evoke from it a sense of the tragic rather than the merely melodramatic,” concluded Los Angeles Times writer Kevin Thomas (May 12, 1995). Nightjohn was first a book by Gary Paulsen, an American writer for young adults, before it was made into a motion picture by African-American filmmaker Charles Burnett for Disney, and it is about an enslaved girl named Sarny (Allison Jones) who is tutored in learning the alphabet and reading by a scarred but resolute man named Nightjohn (Carl Lumbly) who realizes that knowing and wanting are aspects of liberty, a man who had escaped bondage but returned to help others. For transgression of the master’s rules, some are whipped and some have their fingers cut off. The January 31, 1997 film review of Nightjohn by Stephen Holden in The New York Times, at the time of a Lincoln Center exhibition of the director’s work, called the finished photoplay both powerful and pretty. The film that has been made of Solomon Northup’s story by Steve McQueen and his collaborators is gorgeous and painful too. “Harrowing, raw and unapologetic, 12 Years a Slave is the most unforgiving and crucial account of this horrific era that I have witnessed onscreen,” wrote Film Journal International’s film reviewer Tomris Laffly (October 14, 2013), noting that while other films—such as Spielberg’s Lincoln and Amistad—had an element of redemption, Steve McQueen and John Ridley’s treatment of Solomon Northup’s story is a return to the original, outrageous wound, the terrifying and tragic facts of enslavement; and the reviewer Tomris Laffly commended the film for “the vision and skill required to do justice to such historically complex material.”
At the center of the film is Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup. Chiwetel Ejiofor (Solomon Northup), a black British actor—born in London, the son of Nigerian parents—was a participant in the National Youth Theatre, attended the Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, and made his film debut as a language translator in Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, the remarkable film about the enslavement of Africans, their rebellion aboard ship, and subsequent capture by Americans, and the legal trial that ensued to gain their freedom—or send them back into slavery. Obviously, in theme and value, that film is an antecedent to 12 Years a Slave. Chiwetel Ejiofor has done diverse and interesting work: although Ejiofor may have received the most attention for Dirty Pretty Things (2002) and Children of Men (2006), Ejiofor has appeared in Love Actually (2003), Melinda and Melinda (2004), Serenity(2005), Kinky Boots (2005), Inside Man (2006), Talk to Me (2007), American Gangster (2007), Endgame (2009), and Half of a Yellow Sun (2013), among other films. In Stephen Frears’ Dirty Pretty Things, Ejiofor is Okwe, a trained doctor and immigrant without official papers who works as a hotel receptionist in London and becomes entangled in dangerous practices, but a decent and gentle core is perceptible in him. In the bleak future world of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men, in which human reproduction has become endangered, Ejiofor plays an activist, Luke, someone of apparent virtue but whose morality becomes in doubt and manner ferocious. In Woody Allen’s exploration of comic and tragic sensibilities, Melinda and Melinda, Ejiofor, like Daniel Sunjata, plays a romantic ideal, a musician named Ellis Moonsong. In Julian Jarrold’s Kinky Boots, Ejiofor is Lola, a transvestite shoe designer, with moments brash and sad. Chiwetel Ejiofor is Odenigbo in Biyi Bandele’s Nigerian civil war film, Half of a Yellow Sun, an adaptation of a book by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Unfortunately, Half of a Yellow Sun has received limited screening. No doubt, Chiwetel Ejiofor’s performance as Solomon Northup—for better and worse—will remain the role by which many will know him.
The film 12 Years A Slave begins with a few short scenes: an instruction in cane-cutting in Louisiana; a communal sleeping room; a shared meal in which berries (potential ink) and a whittled stick (potential pen) are noticed, and worked with, but found inadequate to the desired task of being tools for writing a letter to friends in search of help for getting out of bondage. A woman, sleeping next to Solomon Northup, a man also known as Platt, puts his hand on her breast and engages him in a brief, joyless sexual act, an act that seems more spiritual relief than one of desire or pleasure (the woman, though she initiated the act, cries once it is over)—and Solomon remembers a tender scene with his own beloved wife Anne. That is the beginning of the film, but not the beginning of Solomon’s life as a free man or as an enslaved person: the photoplay will show us how he came to where he is, and what happens after.
Solomon Northup did different kinds of work, but he had special skill with the violin; and in Steve McQueen’s film we see Solomon, free, performing music at a formal dance, where his work is appreciated by the well-dressed Americans of European descent in attendance. His own daughter, at home, plays the flute. Solomon seems to have a warm, loving family and a comfortable life. On an excursion, Solomon Northup meets two men—Misters Brown and Hamilton (Scoot McNairy, Taran Killam)—who claim to be looking for a musician to perform with a circus. Their extravagant talk includes a casual reference to civilization and darkest Africa. (In the book Twelve Years A Slave, Northup describes one of them as effeminate.) In the film, as in life, Northup goes to Washington with the two men and he is given food and drink and falls ill, waking to find himself in chains. Solomon Northup tells the prole slaveholder who he is—but that brute denies the facts and beats Solomon to get him to accept his new identity and status, a whip tearing his shirt, the blood splashing on his back. “Help me,” Solomon cries in the nation’s capital. (In the book, Solomon makes much of his abuse occurring in a city that represents democracy and liberty.) The captured—in life, in the film—are frequently placed in groups, a denial of privacy that is also a denial of individuality. With Solomon are Eliza (Adepero Oduye) and her two children; and two other black men—one who expects to be saved and another who has evolved strategies for survival. They are put on a ship headed south; and the film viewer sees the red boat wheel turning through river water reflecting the sky (a beautiful image with a changed and charged meaning here, a movement toward trouble, not pleasure). On ship, Solomon Northup and other captive men—after making a distinction between those born free and those born enslaved; knowing those born free know the full value of liberty—discuss whether to fight the crew. “I don’t want to survive. I want to live,” says Solomon (Ejiofor). When a black man seems to quietly object to the sexual abuse of Eliza, he is quickly killed, his shrouded body thrown overboard. Dead, he’s better off, better off than the living slaves, one of the men—Clemens—says. Yet when Clemens is rescued by his plump white master, the shrewd, tough Clemens acts the grateful darky. (In Solomon Northup’s book, it is John, not Clem, whose master reclaims him; and, later, Clem is brought back to Washington by Burch, one of the slave dealers, with Clem escaping later to Canada—stopping on his way to visit an acquaintance of Solomon Northup with news of where Clem last saw Solomon; on pages 34 and 39-40. As well, a sailor agrees to take a letter to an acquaintance of Solomon, but that acquaintance—though he contacts the New York governor—cannot proceed, not knowing where Solomon is; page 49.)
Solomon (Ejiofor), now part of the slave market, recalls being free and shopping with his own wife, and himself becoming the fascination of an enslaved black man surprised to see an elegant black family. Solomon’s memory is brief; and his new reality asserts itself. A slave merchant named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) claims his purchases, among them Solomon, insisting—with a slap—that Solomon Northup accept the name Platt. In a finely furnished room, with refreshments, naked and clothed blacks are offered for sale; and the once pampered, now abject Eliza asks not to be separated from her children, but the slave merchant says her son will grow into a fine beasts and sells him separately, before selling Eliza and Platt to planter William Ford, while refusing to sell Eliza’s beautiful daughter who, in time, may become a concubine for a white man. “My sentimentality extends the length of a coin,” the slave-dealer says. Eliza cries as she and her children are separated; and Solomon plays the violin as consolation and distraction. The word nigger is casually and cruelly used there and later; and it is part of the refrain of a humiliating song—about escape and violent punishment—sung by John Tibeats (Paul Dano), a Ford plantation carpenter who insists on being called master. The Red River plantation owner William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) gives religious readings to work folk and family. William Ford attempts to be a decent man: when Solomon devises a scheme for transporting lumber by water rather than over land, Ford gives Solomon a violin, saying he hopes it gives them both joy over the years; but it is a reference to time passing that is a blessing that contains a curse, an intimation of lasting enslavement. Of course, Solomon’s music is not the only music. Music, of different kinds, recurs: Native Americans—possibly Chickasaws—met in the woods have their own songs, and dance; and Solomon is fascinated by their music. The blacks have work songs and spiritual hymns; and one can see the roots of black music in America (when Solomon joins a funeral song, it is an acceptance of sorrow and of community). “Fortunate was the slave who came to his possession. Were all men such as he, Slavery would be deprived of more than half its bitterness,” wrote Solomon Northup of William Ford in his book Twelve Years A Slave (page 62). Ford, to console Eliza, tells her that her duties will be light, confined to the house, according to the written account; and she may confuse his polite power with her own liberty. Her constant mourning will force Ford and his wife to send her away (Eliza will be put to work in the field on a plantation owned by Ford’s wife, and will remain sad and become emaciated).
The carpenter John Tibeats (Paul Dano) is outraged by Solomon’s successful idea regarding the transport of lumber: that kind of intelligence is perceived as transcendent, transgressive. “Are you an engineer or a nigger?” asks Tibeats in Steve McQueen’s film12 Years a Slave. The dignified, intelligent Solomon Northup, known on the Ford planation as Platt, works dutifully (he is the kind of man who knows how to solve problems with inventions); and his work is interrupted by the ignorant and spiteful John Tibeats, and Solomon is called a brute and a dog by Tibeats. (In the Northup book, William Ford’s brother Franklin has debts that affect William, causing William Ford to engage in a financial relationship with Tibeats for Solomon, and Tibeats and Solomon work on Mistress Ford’s Bayou Boeuf plantation, away from William, making Solomon vulnerable; pages 75 to 80.) Infuriated by Solomon’s competence, Tibeats attacks Solomon’s work and body—and Solomon fights back: Solomon’s whipping of Tibeats is a thrilling and satisfying moment. It is rare when violence has a genuine spiritual root but it does here: it is an affirmation of self and spirit. “I will have flesh, and I will have all of it,” declares John Tibeats, meaning to kill Platt, Solomon Northup. (The spoken language in the film is sometimes colloquial and crude and sometimes very eloquent, an eloquence explained by the significance of the holy scriptures in people’s lives. The visual language of the film combines the beauty and cruelty that Northup described in his book.) Tibeats says that Platt will not live to see another day; and Tibeats returns with two men and they begin to hang Platt, but the overseer, guns out, interrupts them and tells them they have no right to destroy Ford’s property: the attackers leave, and Platt is left hanging by rope and tiptoe until the plantation owner’s return.
In an October 24, 2013 essay for online magazine Grantland, film critic Wesley Morris describes the interrupted hanging of Solomon Northup, which leaves him in suspension: “It is a grim sight, the man hanging from a tree. His neck is noosed. His arms are tied behind him. The toes of two booted feet tap, tap, tap in the mud, neither foot firmly on the earth…I’ve never seen a sequence that so elegantly uses duration to lay out an ecosystem of power and powerlessness, one that ripples across time, from the 1840s to the 21st century. 12 Years a Slave manages to do that again and again. It coolly clarifies the United States’ lasting social underpinnings: the seeds of black anger, black self-doubt, black resilience, white supremacy, and white guilt. The director is Steve McQueen, a 44-year-old Englishman. The screenwriter is the American entertainment-industry veteran John Ridley. Both men are black, and the movie they’ve made radically shifts the perspective of the American racial historical drama from the allegorical uplift to the explanatory wallop.” It is an essay that commends the film for its honesty and its restraint.
While Solomon Northup, Platt, hangs there, the beauty of the land—its greenery, its serenity—is perceptible, as are the chores and play that continue around him. One woman brings him a cup of water. William Ford arrives and cuts him down. “You are an exceptional nigger Platt, but I fear no good will come of it,” Ford (Cumberbatch) says, acknowledging his own debt, and Platt’s difficult reputation, and the necessity of conveying ownership of Platt to the nigger-breaker Epps, with whom Platt will spend ten years. (In the book, Solomon has a few other experiences—with masters Peter Tanner and Mister Eldret—before he gets to Epps.) The cotton planter Edwin Epps is played by Michael Fassbender, an interesting actor who has quickly become important. He is red-haired, lean, ferocious, and funny—impressive and scary, as compelling as a cobra. Michael Fassbender (Edwin Epps) was in the films 300 and Inglorious Basterds, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, Shame, and The Counselor; and he has been working on Macbeth and also a Terrence Malick film. Edwin Epps, a cruel, drunken, demanding man, quotes the holy bible to support great and daily punishment, punishment given when the cotton yield is less than wanted. Platt/Solomon is not good at cotton-picking, though the dark, slim girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) is very good: while Patsey picks more than five-hundred pounds a day, Platt cannot pick two-hundred pounds, which is standard. Patsey hums, and makes little dolls out of ordinary materials, signs of imagination, inner life. According to Solomon Northup’s written account, Patsey, of Guinea heritage, was slim and straight, pleasant and obedient (pages 141-143), and ignorant but virtuous (152). Her value to Edwin Epps—her work, her appeal—infuriates his watching wife, incarnated by actress Sarah Paulson. Sarah Paulson (Mistress Epps) has appeared in the motion pictures Bug, Down with Love, The Notorious Bettie Page, Martha Marcy May Marlene, and Mud, as well as a lot of television. Mistress Epps hits Patsey with a heavy liquor bottle during an impromptu evening dance her husband has called (interrupting their sleep, he does not care that the workers need rest). Mistress Epps threatens to leave her husband if he does not get rid of Patsey: he tells his wife, in front of all, that if he had to choose between the two he would choose Patsey (yet Patsey’s hurt and crying are ignored). The women in the film—the mournful Eliza, the abused and exploited Patsey, and the disrespected wife of Epps—have a very difficult time, exposed as they were to the ideals and hypocrisy, the desires and perversity, of male society. “I won’t have my mood spoiled,” the master says, insisting on continuing the dance.
“It is not the fault of the slaveholder that he is cruel, so much as it is the fault of the system under which he lives. He cannot withstand the influence of habit and associations that surround him,” wrote Solomon Northup (157). In the film, Edwin Epps has a rage for Patsey; and has Platt/Solomon interrupt her visit to a neighbor, Mistress Shaw, and bring her back to his estate. There, the three sit down to tea and Mistress Shaw, a black woman (Alfre Woodard), explains to Patsey and Platt her luck in getting the plantation owner to favor her; and still she imagines divine justice coming to all the plantation owners. (In one place in the book—page 176—Mistress Shaw is named Charlotte, and in another place—page 195—she is named Harriet.) It is an unexpected character and an amusing film performance—and also quietly chilling. Alfre Woodard (Mistress Shaw), featured in Health, Cross Creek, Go Tell It on the Mountain, Grand Canyon, Passion Fish, Bopha!, Crooklyn, Follow Me Home, Love & Basketball, Something New, and many other films and television movies and serials, is honest and wise, onscreen and off. Upon returning with Patsey from the Shaw plantation, Platt is accosted by Epps, who is even jealous of Platt with Patsey. Epps chases Platt with a knife and is reprimanded by Mistress Epps, who has no power to control or change her husband. The rape of Patsey by Edwin Epps is a sharp, perpetual fact: and her indifferent but painful submission to his lust inclines him to slap and choke her. The valuable Patsey is endangered. At another dance, Mistress Epps offers cookies, accusations, and insults against all, and then deeply scratches Patsey’s face. Patsey asks Platt to drown her: “I ain’t got no comfort in this life,” Patsey says. “Do what I ain’t got the strength to do myself.” Patsey’s treatment may be the most excruciating to watch. When Epps goes crazy looking for her on the Sabbath (Sunday), her day off, after Patsey has gone to Mistress Shaw to get the soap that Mistress Epps will not grant her, Patsey is tied to the whipping post and beaten by Epps—“Strike the life from her,” Mistress Epps insists—and Patsey’s back is deeply ripped by the whip—which gives Edwin Epps pleasure.
There are cotton worms in the cotton, ruining the crop; and Edwin Epps sees that as a divine plague, but Epps looks not to his own behavior but to that of the blacks as the cause of misfortune. Epps leases Platt/Solomon and others to a neighbor, a judge, the owner of a cane plantation; and it is here—with the instruction of cane-cutting—that the film had begun: cane-cutting, and a meal with berries, and a joyless sex act with a fellow female slave. The judge loans out Platt as violinist for a costume party and allows Platt to keep the money he earns. When Platt returns to Epps’ planation, Platt will offer that money to a white indentured servant if the man will send a letter for Platt to northern friends.
Mistress Epps had given Platt/Solomon a grocery list, and when he instinctively looked at it, she inquired about whether he can read: he denied it. On his way to pick up supplies, Platt/Solomon thinks of running away and walks into a lynching party, with two black men as the dishonored guests. On a subsequent shopping trip, Solomon took a sheet of paper from the Epps bundle for himself, to write a letter for help. After the white indentured servant Armsby—who is bad at picking cotton, the worst, though he is not whipped, as the blacks are—agrees to take his letter, Solomon writes a letter but the servant betrays him to Epps: when Epps finds Solomon, accusing him of deviltry, Solomon denies the accusation, saying the servant Armsby merely wanted to be promoted to overseer and has invented the lie. Another man, a traveling Canadian carpenter, Bass (Brad Pitt), earthy and liberal, lined and bearded, looking like an old-time Quaker, does work on the Epps plantation, and criticizes slavery and speak of universal rights. In the Northup book, Bass is described as being of light complexion and hair, between forty and fifty, cool and thoughtful: “He was that kind of person whose peculiarity of manner was such that nothing he uttered ever gave offense. What would be intolerable, coming from the lips of another, could be said by him with impunity” (204). In other words, Bass has charisma—making Brad Pitt a perfect choice. Brad Pitt (Bass), who seems to have been dynamic from the start of his career, has become a significant actor and filmmaker: from Thelma & Louise, A River Runs Through It, Legends of the Fall, Twelve Monkeys, and The Mexican to Babel andThe Tree of Life to Moneyball and World War Z and much more. His company Plan B produced 12 Years a Slave. Bass (Pitt) argues against slavery with Epps, who laughs (in the book Twelve Years A Slave, Epps describes Platt’s popularity and inventiveness to Bass, calling Platt a genius, while also defending slavery; page 219). The free-thinker Bass hears Solomon’s life story; and Solomon asks Bass to send a letter to Solomon’s northern friends—and Bass agrees to do so; and does what he promises.
Inspired and informed by Solomon Northup’s accounting of his life, the film 12 Years a Slave may be a great film. It is a report of one man’s experience, but it represents the suffering and survival of many. It is a correction to the false reports of others. It is a work of beauty and thought: knowledge is brought to the film viewer through word, deed, and image. After commenting on the excellent quality of the film—and its damaging but lucrative antecedents The Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind—the magazine The New Republic’s film critic David Thomson declared that the film should be seen: “It is a film that necessity and education demand seeing” (November 22, 2013). In an October 27, 2013 Denver Post article on a Telluride Festival screening of the film, Lisa Kennedy called 12 Years a Slave “the transcendent, searing saga.” Following the film’s Best Picture win at the industry’s annual academy awards, the Oscars, Esther Iverem, the editor of the cultural web site Seeing Black said, “Perhaps the long-lasting value of this award-winning film extends beyond its depiction of the brutality of slavery to its depiction of the ECONOMIC TENTACLES of slavery in the building and foundation of the United States—and that foundation is a reality that escapes many Americans, including many so-called lawmakers today in the nation’s capital” (March 30, 2014). Yet, the film has worth as more than a record of a punishing history or evidence of contribution to the financial wealth of the country. It is a document of how humanity is threatened and preserved. Solomon Northup’s was a particular human being, a man of perception and special skills; and it is that kind of individuality that injustice exploits, obscures, and perverts.
In a film review that registered the unique perspective of Solomon Northup as a free and thoughtful black man, the efficacy of Ejiofor’s performance, and the here classical technique of Steve McQueen, the New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis noted the lead character’s journey from master to master: “It’s a desperate path and a story that seizes you almost immediately with a visceral force. But Mr. McQueen keeps everything moving so fluidly and efficiently that you’re too busy worrying about Solomon, following him as he travels from auction house to plantation, to linger long in the emotions and ideas that the movie churns up. Part of this is pragmatic—Mr. McQueen wants to keep you in your seat, not force you out of the theater, sobbing—but there’s something else at work here. This is, he insists, a story about Solomon, who may represent an entire subjugated people and, by extension, the peculiar institution, as well as the American past and present. Yet this is also, emphatically, the story of one individual” (October 17, 2013). Having respect for our own minds and spirits, cultivating ourselves, brings joy and strength and wisdom—and can allow us the imagination and skill to renew ourselves after we have been hurt, insulted, used: and the cultivated Solomon Northup had a unique story to tell as he was a unique man. Solomon Northup did more than suffer while he lived.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, was an intern at Africa Report, poetry editor for the male feminist magazine Changing Men, founded and acted as principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, wrote about painter Henry Tanner for Art & Antiques, organized the first interdepartmental environmental justice meeting at Audubon, wrote about fiction and poetry for World Literature Today and international film for Offscreen, and has done music reviews that constitute a history of popular music for The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared inThe African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Black Film Review, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, and Wax Poetics. “There have been some wonderful films on the African-American experience: Antwone Fisher, Boomerang, Chameleon Street, Daughters of the Dust, Devil in a Blue Dress, Eve’s Bayou, Ganja and Hess, Get on the Bus, The Great Debaters, Jumping the Broom, Losing Ground, Sankofa, and Sidewalk Stories. The book Screenplays of the African American Experience, edited by Phyllis R. Klotman, collects some of the more remarkable scripts, for films made between 1973 and 1989, a book that deserves more attention. I am happy to share the original, complete final draft of my commentary on the film 12 Years A Slave and the text that inspired it with The Compulsive Reader,” says Garrett.