By Joan Ellis
Watching “12 Years a Slave” is an ordeal. It can also become, if we allow it, a major contribution to a collective understanding of our past. In the hands of director Steve McQueen, writer Ridley Scott and a fine cast, the movie is undeniably excellent. What lifts it to the level of importance is that it is based on the memoir written by Solomon Northup about the long nightmare he endured beginning in 1841. The power of the film is its truth.
Solomon Northup lived as a free man in Saratoga, N.Y., working various jobs and playing his violin for pay until 1841 when two con men convinced him to accompany them to Washington, D.C., for a short stint playing his violin in their circus. There, in sight of the U.S. capitol, they shackled and sold him into slavery where he suffered for 12 years.
The brutality to the slaves – from auction block to the cotton fields to rape, lynching and repeated lashings – is filmed in grotesquely effective detail. It is physical abuse encouraged by power and emotional erasure enabled by venom.
This is the story of one highly intelligent man determined to survive and return to his family. He did survive, and he wrote his book and lectured throughout the north for the abolitionist cause.
As Solomon Northup, Chiwetel Ejiofor is superb in a performance of great strength and dignity as are the people in his slave life: Lupita Nyong, riveting as Patsey who cannot restrain herself and suffers for it; Paul Giamatti, thoroughly convincing as a ruthless slave trader; and Michael Fassbender as the plantation master who nearly drives us from the theater with his intrinsic evil.
These and many others rise to the challenge of arduous roles. But questions poured into my head.
Why did it take so long for a fledgling nation, being built by people fleeing tyranny, to recognize that people cannot be property? Why did the wisdom of the Founding Fathers not extend to ownership of human beings?
Is it as simple as admitting that the profit motive has been our propulsion from the beginning and that an agricultural economy could best flourish on slave labor that cost nothing?
How could slave owners lash rivers of blood on the backs of each person who failed to pick 200 pounds of cotton every day?
Is pleasure in another man’s abject humiliation the natural state of man? Are we simply more restrained now by law and regulation?
Why do we study the Civil War, Lincoln and emancipation with pride but rarely examine the slave culture that supported the American economy for 100 years after men were bought and brought in chains to America?
Historians have written about slavery but who chooses to read what we don’t want to hear?
This powerful movie – as raw as the wounds on Solomon Northup’s back – is a highly visible challenge to all of us to think quietly about the dark side of our history.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.