This review originally appeared on aarondcharles.com. A link is provided below. If you have not seen the film, you should also know that the following review will discuss the plot in great detail.
I grew up learning about slavery in school. My history books covered it. We talked about it in class. But I always viewed it as something that happened. Of course I knew it was horribly wrong. It was a stain on our history. But that’s just what it was to me: history.
Then I watched 12 Years a Slave.
If there is any film that I believe should be required viewing for every American, it should be this film. There is a moment late in 12 Years a Slave when Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) looks directly into the camera. Even after so many excruciating scenes, this small moment finds new ways to break our hearts. It’s at that moment that you look directly into the face of someone whose humanity has been ripped to shreds. It’s painful to see. In many ways, I think it’s necessary for us to see it.
These things happened — to real people. I think we need to consider that.
The movie’s opening scene shows a group of slaves receiving instruction on the proper technique for cutting sugar cane. Later, we see them in the crowded slave quarters. We watch as Northup engages in a sexual encounter with an unamed woman. No nudity is shown, but it is graphic. From the very beginning, we are shown how the dehumanizing nature of slavery makes its victims desperate for any contact.
At the outset, let me just make a quick note about the sexual content in this film. It is graphic, and both male and female nudity is shown. The nudity is never in a sexual context, but is rather used to show how inhumanely the slaves are treated. Literally everything is stripped from them. This initial scene is one of two depictions of overt sexual content on screen, although there are sexual references made later in the film. The sexual content is just one of many reasons this film is difficult to watch. As I mentioned in my primer on content in movies, I generally draw a harder line when it comes to depictions of sexual content, especially nudity. But this is a rare film where I choose to overlook it. Why?
Because I think it simply is depicting truth.
This is how these people were actually treated. I believe that depicting truth is the chief task of any film. There are other films that are true to their stories and contain just as much if not greater levels of sexual content or nudity. Nearly all of such films I choose not to watch. However, I think this film is too important. Its quality in other areas put it in its own category, for me. Instead, I choose to look away from the screen when I need to. If you are anything like me, there will be other moments when you will need to avert your eyes.
We then cut to scenes showing Northup as a free man. He has a family. He has a life. This movie is based off of Northup’s real life account — a book he authored that bears the same name as the movie. He works as a violinist, and he is approached by two men who offer him a short-term musician job if he will go to Washington D.C. with them. Northup obliges.
But there is no job waiting for him. He awakes in a dark room. He had been drugged the night before. Disoriented and alone, Northup has no idea what has happened or what comes next.
Our thoughts drift to his family, and the pain of what we’re seeing on screen begins to set in. Northup is sent to a slave pen, and we begin to see the dehumanization of slavery. At this point, Northup still views himself as a free man. Yet his captors beat him mercilessly. He confides in a fellow slave named Clemens (Chris Chalk). Clemens tells Northup that he needs to keep a low profile. In the middle of the night, they are taken to a river boat where they will be transported south. They meet a slave named Robert (Michael Kenneth Williams) who says they should start a revolt. Northup is torn between the thoughts of his family and the words of Clemens, and they decide to wait.
Later that night, a slaver comes to the hold intending to rape a slave named Eliza (Adepero Oduye). Robert intercedes, and we watch with Northup as the slaver stabs and kills Robert. Clemens and Northup are then tasked with disposing of the body. As they drop his lifeless body in the river, Clemens remarks that Robert is better off dead.
Though difficult scenes such as this one are prevalent throughout the film, one thing is certain. This movie is beautifully directed by Steve McQueen. I specifically chose the word “beautifully” there. The horror of what we see depicted on screen is interspersed with gorgeous southern vistas. This is also a film where the music adds to the emotional impact instead of detracting from it. It’s almost as if the audience is being given moments to breathe and to wonder how we as humans can live in such a beautiful world and yet still do such hateful and despicable things to each other.
The boat arrives at the dock, and Clemens is greeted by his master. Clemens does away with any sign of his intellect and subserviently follows. Northup has now lost his family and his only friend in the world. He is alone. He is then placed in front of a slaver named Freeman (Paul Giamatti) who calls him by the name “Platt.” Northup doesn’t answer to the new name, and he pays the price. The freedom in his mind is slowly being chipped away.
A plantation owner named Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is impressed by Northup and Eliza. He buys them both, but does not have enough money for Eliza’s children. They are separated from each other, and Eliza begins wailing loudly. As the viewers, we don’t fault her for her sobs. Yet, we have already seen enough to know that they put her in even more danger. Ford’s wife remarks that food and rest will help her forget her children.
We meet Ford’s slave handler, Tibeats (Paul Dano), and overseer, Chapin (JD Evermore). They watch over the slaves, who are tasked with chopping timber. Northup has an idea for a simpler way to transport the timber via the river. Tibeats is patronizing, but Ford decides to give Northup’s idea a chance. It works, and Tibeats is embarassed. We see his anger beginning to kindle.
At night in the slave quarters, Northup cannot take Eliza’s constant loud wailing. He implores here to consider the “decent” treatment they receive at Ford’s hands. She responds by saying that Ford must clearly understand that Northup is not a slave, yet he has done nothing to free Northup. He begins to consider this. Later, Eliza is sold off because Ford’s wife cannot stand the noise.
Tibeats makes repeated attempts to get back at Northup. The situation explodes when Tibeats attempts to beat Northup, but Northup fights back. We brace ourselves, as we know that this will not be allowed to stand. Chapin comes and breaks up the fight. He sends Tibeats away, and he tells Northup that he cannot protect him if he runs. And so we wait, knowing it is not over.
I’m not sure there is any way to prepare yourself for what comes next. Tibeats gathers up a posse, and they go to lynch Northup. We watch in horror as they put the noose around his neck and prepare to hang him. Then, Chapin comes and chases them off while Northup struggles. His toes are barely touching the muddy ground. Chapin, however, leaves Northup there — a punishment for striking a white man. In an absolutely unbearable scene, the camera stares at Northup unflinchingly as various others walk past him hanging from the tree branch — his toes barely able to support him. This is everyday life to them. I could not watch this scene without averting my eyes. I will never forget the feeling when I saw it for the first time in the theater. The camera just stays there, and we are forced to consider what we are seeing.
Ford finally comes to cut Northup down, but his fate is sealed. He must be sold, because Tibeats will not stop until he’s exacted revenge.
Northup is sold to Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), a man known for his propensity for merciless beatings. Epps sees his ownership of the slaves as a divine appointment. I shudder as he blasphemously uses Scripture to rationalize his actions. Yet, again, here must be a depiction of what these slave owners thought. They had so twisted the words of Scripture in their minds that they seemed to them to be a call to action rather than a rebuke for their horrific actions. As at many other points of this film, it seems to me to be a truthful depiction of the horrors of slavery.
Let me also take this opportunity to praise the acting in this film. Ejiofor is fantastic as Northup throughout. He speaks volumes with his eyes. I have no idea how Fassbender prepared for this role, but he is ruthless and frightening as Epps. And at this point, we meet the character who might just give us the best performance in a film full of fantastic acting turns — Lupita Nyong’o as Patsey.
After each day of picking cotton, the slaves are brought together as the weight of their bundles are marked. Northup’s first day brings in a less-than-average yield. Slaves that picked less cotton than the previous day are given lashes. We then hear Patsey’s yield — nearly double that of any worker. Epps creepily lingers over her and offers extensive praise for her work. Epps’ wife (Sarah Paulson) watches in disgust. Later that night, we see her throw a heavy crystal decanter at Patsey, brutally scarring her face. She demands that Epps sell Patsey, but Epps says that he would rather send his wife away.
Mistress Epps sends Northup on an errand to the store. While he is out, he again considers escape. He then stumbles onto a lynching. Considering the possibility of this fate, he continues to the store instead. His spirit is broken. While at the store, he notices some paper. He has an idea to take a spare sheet each time in order to craft a letter.
Since he was a free man, Northup is educated. He sees this as an opportunity that other slaves, who have grown up in slavery, do not have. At various points in the film, we see how he is torn between acknowledging who he truly is and casting his identity aside. As a slave, he is commanded to be subservient — to be Platt.
It goes back to the advice he initially received from Clemens — keep a low profile. As Americans, we cheer freedom from a young age. It is our core ideal. No one should have to change their identity simply to survive. You shoudn’t have to keep a low profile to avoid being beaten. You should be able to be yourself.
But that is not the reality for Northup. He cannot shake the knowledge of his free life. He knows that’s who he is — despite what the master says. There is some part of him that still believes he can have that life again. But then he sees a lynching or a whipping or any other of the horrible atrocities of life as a slave. As the movie continues, we see that the choice is between hope and survival. The more he chooses survival, the less hope he has. But he never fully extinguishes the flame. I’m not sure how I would react in such a position. After being so beaten down and brutalized, would I hold on to any hope at all?
Later, Northup is sent by Epps to the neighboring Shaw plantation. Shaw (Scott M. Jefferson) married one of his own slaves. Northup has been sent to retrieve Patsey, who is there visiting Mistress Shaw (Alfre Woodard). Epps is worried that Master Shaw will make advances on Patsey, and Northup convinces her to return with him.
When they arrive, Epps is clearly drunk. Northup tells Patsey to avoid Epps. In his drunken mania, Epps interprets this as a sexual advance by Northup. Epps chases Northup around the yard before Mistress Epps intervenes. She is disgusted by her husband’s fixation on Patsey. But the situation is far from over.
Near the end of the film, we see the slaves singing the gospel spiritual “Roll Jordon Roll” at a funeral for a fellow slave who has passed. I was so touched by their faith. In the midst of such brutal treatment, they still sang together — “My soul ought to rise in heaven, Lord, for the year when Jordan rolls.” I say my faith is the core part of my identity. My belief in God is what I hold most dear. And I believe that my faith is in His hands, not just my own. But, the fact remains that my faith has never been tested quite like these people’s faith had been. It is a powerful reminder — even humanity at its most evil cannot touch the power and the love of God. It remains in the hearts of believers even in the bleakest situation.
Throughout the film, we are given frequent reminders of how bleak and brutal the situation is. As I said before, the music and the cinematography provide moments to breathe. But, after taking those short breaths, we are faced with the horrors of slavery once more.
That night after Northup and Patsey return, Epps stumbles to the slave quarters and rapes Patsey. At this point, Mistress Epps has had enough. She calls Patsey into the house to chastise her before slashing her face. Later that night, in an absolutely heartbreaking moment, Patsey asks Northup to strangle her and dispose of her body. She simply cannot take the repeated abuses of Epps and his wife. Northup refuses.
We come to find out that Epps’ crops have been ravaged by insects. He decides to lend his slaves to a local judge (Bryan Batt). This reconnects us to the first scene in the film, as the slaves are taught to cut sugar cane. The judge notices Northup and recommends him to a neighbor looking for party musicians. The judge says that Northup may keep whatever wages he earns. Northup goes to the fancy party, and we can see that he has flashbacks to his free life. This only exacerbates his inner turmoil. It is a brief respite from the realities of his bondage.
Northup meets a white laborer, Armsby (Garret Dillahunt) who has been hired to help with the cotton crop. Even though he produces a yield far below the others, the rest are whipped while Armsby is spared. As he attends to Northup’s wounds, Armsby tells him his story. Northup feels he has found a sympathetic ear, and he decides to risk sending a letter with him. He gives Armsby all his earnings and says he will deliver the letter to him in two days. But before Northup has a chance, Armsby betrays him and tells Epps everything. Northup thinks on his feet and calls Armsby a liar attempting to get a job. Since Northup had not given Armsby the letter yet, Epps is persuaded and Northup is spared. Later that night, we watch in agony as Northup burns the letter. His hope of freedom crumbles into ash.
We are then introduced to another hired hand — Bass (Brad Pitt, also a producer on the film). He is a northerner, and he is staunchly anti-slavery. Northup overhears Bass and Epps arguing back and forth about their opposing views.
Later that day, Epps finds out that Patsey is missing. He is incensed, and he threatens violence against all the women over her loss. They come to find out that Patsey had simply gone back to visit her friend at Shaw’s plantation. Epps believes that she went to have an affair with Shaw. In another heartbreaking exchange, Patsey explains that she is not given any soap to clean with. She went back to Shaw’s to get soap. She has yielded 500 pounds of cotton day in and day out and for that, she wants to at least be clean.
But it is not enough for Epps. He calls for Patsey to be tied to the whipping post. As Epps prepares to strike her with the lash, he cannot bring himself to do it. But his anger is so inflamed that he orders Northup to do the whipping. Northup balks at first, but then obliges. His gentle attempts are not tolerated by Mistress Epps. She implores Epps to be more severe. Epps holds a gun to Northup’s head and orders him to whip harder.
It is another unbearable scene. I don’t think there’s any reason to rate the severity or to decide which scene is the most difficult to watch. It’s the pain of watching a human brutalize another human. In no sense should that be allowed. Yet, these things happened for years. The sound of the whip hitting Patsey’s bare back and her agonizing screams are searingly painful. The look on Northup’s face as he is forced to inflict so much pain on a friend is also agonizing.
Why would people do such things to one another? How can a nation heal from such systemic evil? These are important questions. They are just as important today as they were then. For we can clearly see that, although slavery was abolished, we are still plagued by issues of racial differences. I believe that if we truly want healing, we must confront our past. I cannot think of any experience where I have been able to confront our nation’s past of slavery more vividly than when I first saw this film in the theater.
Northup finds himself alone with Bass, who explains that he is from Canada. Northup, once again, puts himself out there and asks Bass to help him in his plight by writing letters to his friends in Saratoga. Bass agrees, but he leaves once the work is finished. Northup is left to wonder whether he has a new chance at freedom, or whether his hopes will be dashed once more.
After some time passes, we see a carriage pull up to the plantation. The men are looking for “Platt” and Northup comes to meet them. They ask him a few questions, and he recognizes Mr. Parker (Rob Steinberg) — a friend of Northup’s from Saratoga. Despite Epps’ feeble protests, the men are convinced that this is Northup, and they take him into their carriage. As they leave, Northup looks back to see Patsey. She calls out, and he runs to give her one final embrace. She collapses in grief as Northup is taken away on the carriage. We shudder to think of her life on the plantation.
Northup then returns home to meet his family after 12 long years. His daughter has married and now has a son — Solomon Northup. They embrace amid tears, and title cards explain that Northup attempted to sue his kidnappers but was not successful. He became an abolitionist, and helped many slaves reach freedom.
I remember sitting in my seat in the theater for what seemed like an hour after the movie was finished. In reality, it was probably just a few seconds. But I was emotionally shaken. I remember saying, “That is one of the best films I’ve ever watched, but I’m not sure I will ever watch it again.”
Since then, I have seen it again. In fact, I now own the film on DVD. While I pause at putting the word “favorite” in front of it due to the sheer difficulty of the subject matter, I can surely say that this is one of the finest films I’ve ever seen. The acting and direction are phenomemal. It went on to win Best Picture at the 86th Academy Awards. On top of all the accolades, I feel that its true power comes from how it forces you to confront and consider our country’s history.
You may wonder at the point in watching such a difficult film. I’ll acknowledge that it may not be a film that everyone will want to watch. But, as I said before, I think all Americans should see this film at least once. Consider this story — a real-life account — and how this history affects our country today. There’s something to be said for considering history, not as an account confined to a musty class textbook, but as real life. Something that actually happened, though it be many years in the past. Yes, it has been many years since the account depicted in this film. But time alone does not heal all wounds.
How do we heal? I believe that the love of God is the only power great enough to heal such deep wounds. But I think we must acknowledge that, yes, these things happened. Slavery is a part of our history. As a country, we must face it, and we must consider our past to foster healing now and in the future.
“LORD my God, I called to you for help, and you healed me. You, LORD, brought me up from the realm of the dead; you spared me from going down to the pit. Sing the praises of the LORD, you his faithful people; praise his holy name.”
— Psalm 30:2–4