Inalienable rights. It’s a term that’s at the very core of our country’s belief system. We’re brought up on it. It’s brought out for every political moment, heated news network argument, and has (sadly) become a bit of a catch-all for ill-informed pundits trying to make a point they have no right making. The words have been so abused by political agenda that it can be difficult to remember the profoundness of their meaning.
“12 Years a Slave,” is a harsh and brutal reminder of another time in our history when we’d lost site of the gravity of these words. Obviously it’s difficult to watch such a dark chapter of American history played out before us, and the intense tragedy of Solomon Northup’s true story makes a deplorable moment in our country’s past even more agonizing to behold.
At the center of it all is Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free man from Upstate New York who’s conned, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. The little amount of time that passes between scenes of him playing music with his children to being sold to the highest bidder is disturbing, and rightfully so.
It seems wrong to call anyone who bought and sold human beings kind, but in a world where slavery was a form of commerce things become relative, so in that respect, Solomon’s first master, William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch), is a kind man. He respects Solomon’s opinions and sees him as an intelligent being. But it’s clear that he still sees him as property, a fact that becomes painfully clear when an uprising forces him to sell Solomon to a nearby plantation owner Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender).
Epps is not, in any way or reality a nice man. He’s a sadist with a flair for the dramatic, and what follows goes well beyond cruelty.
The brief moments of hope and beauty serve as reminders of just how bleak Solomon’s situation is. It’s hard to imagine trusting anyone ever again after enduring that kind of hell, and its a precedent we see reinforced over and over again.
The collaboration of a collection of incredible performances (on both sides of this abominable moment in history) and the story’s horrifying foundation in truth make this film a truly profound experience.
We’ve without a doubt come a long way since the days of slavery in this country, but we still neither live in a world free of its grip nor the fear and hate that let it endure so long. “12 Years a Slave” is a harsh reminder of where that hate has taken us in the past, and (on a slightly more positive note) the incredible resilience of the human spirit.