12 Years a Slave

Rating: Before praising American exceptionalism, shouldn’t we remember a history that combined liberty with slavery?

12 Years a SlaveWhen you experience greatness, do you immediately recognize it? You may love your spouse, but were you aware of it the first time you met?

On the other hand, there are those moments in life when magnificence unfolds in front of you, leaving you transfixed in its splendor. Such is the case with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, a film that repeatedly washes over all of your senses. From the beginning you feel more overwhelmed than entertained, in the process forced to become immersed in our country’s sordid history.

Chiwetel Ejiofor gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Solomon Northup, a black man born in freedom in Upstate New York. It is 1841, and he is an impeccable man devoted to his wife and two children. A recognized violinist, he is tricked by two unknown slave traders to participate in a brief traveling show, a money-making adventure that nearly destroys his life.

Awakened in chains after a drunken evening, he is spirited off to a plantation in Georgia where he is sold into slavery. Humiliated and degraded beyond description, he loses all concept of reality as you watch in profound disbelief.

Based on a novel written by Mr. Northup 12 years later after his return to freedom, what Mr. McQueen gives the viewer is a firsthand look at the racial degradation going on in the antebellum South. Blacks are treated like property in the same fashion as horses or cows, with the men viciously whipped while the women are forced to consent to sex or face death.

What is so revealing about 12 Years is that this American story is awash with talented British thespians. To begin with, Director McQueen is British, and he unashamedly exposes the cancerous sore that haunts the United States, a country founded on the principle that all men are created equal while unashamedly embracing bigotry.

Additionally, the movie is dominated by the British stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender, both just appearing in films few people took the time to see, The Counselor and The Fifth Estate. Mr. Cumberbatch plays Ford, a slave owner with a troubled heart who first purchased Mr. Northup. He tries to be kind and caring, but also buys a young woman while failing in the attempts to keep her young children with her. That moment is as heartbreaking as anything to appear on the screen in recent years.

Forced to sell his slaves for business reasons, Northup finds himself being owned by Edwin Epps and his wife, two people devoid of both moral principles and shame. Mr. Fassbender embraces his role as the wretched Mr. Epps, a man who will torture his slaves while then forcing them to engage in a dance for his amusement. He provides a galvanizing performance as a supremely hateful soul, and seldom will you be so captivated by someone so utterly contemptible.

There are numerous other performances that make this film a cinematic work of art, most notably Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey, a slave sexually brutalized by Epps under Northup’s watchful eye. She begs Northup to kill her, as death is far better than living. Northup can’t, even though he is eventually forced to brutally whip her as Epps and his wife stare on.

Additionally, look for unforgettable performances from Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano and Brad Pitt. Giamatti plays a slave trader with the ironic name of Freeman, a man who sells human beings as if he works in a hardware store. Dano is a twisted gem, here appearing as the offensive overseer working under Ford. He loves belittling all slaves with intense glee. As for Mr. Pitt, he surfaces  late in the game as a construction worker working for Epps, and it is his complete distaste for the concept of slavery that leads Northup back home.

There are other meaningful performances, but there simply isn’t time to give them the attention they deserve. However, it is Mr. Ejiofor who dominates this film, and you are frequently left staring into his bloodshot eyes and tortured face as he diminishes himself fighting for survival and a chance to once again see his family.

As I watched 12 Years, I was left in despair thinking of the treatment of African-Americans across our country to this very day. Our rejection of our national history is inexcusable, and I am convinced that we still see it playing out on a national stage with the vehement opposition to President Obama and everything he proposes.

On top of that, look at our despicable treatment of alleged prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Kept in abject isolation for over a decade, this really is nothing more than a modern-day excuse to enslave selected people from the Middle East.

There simply is no way that we can make sense of the 21st century if we don’t understand our roots as Americans. While we continually want to tell other countries how they should live and govern themselves, what if other countries did the same thing to us 180 years ago when we embraced the legality of slavery?

Since we would have told critics at the time to mind their own business, shouldn’t we hold our national tongue before criticizing other nations for actions that we don’t approve?