Rob Edelman: History Come To Life

Sep 16, 2013

One of the highlights of the just-concluded Toronto Film Festival is a film with an upstate New York connection. And you can be sure that, come the end of the year, it deservedly will be atop a host of critics’ ten-best-films lists and deservedly will garner a host of Academy Award nominations.

The film is 12 YEARS A SLAVE. It is the fact-based account of Solomon Northrup, a black man who, once upon a time, resided with his wife and children in Saratoga. 12 YEARS A SLAVE opens in 1841, and Northrup-- unlike his brothers and sisters in the American South, who were slaves-- is a free man. The film follows Northrup’s plight as he is kidnapped and finds himself transported south where he is enslaved and degraded, with no hope of ever recapturing his freedom and reuniting with his loved ones.

There is so much to say about 12 YEARS A SLAVE. In the film, you see pure love between black husbands and wives and their offspring, and you see how that love is contaminated by greedy white men who view blacks as little more than slabs of beef that they can ever-so-casually peddle for a dime or a dollar. You see the spirit of a man like Solomon Northrup who, unlike his fellow slaves, knows what it is like to be free. And so he observes, “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

12 YEARS A SLAVE also features a gallery of name actors in supporting roles. The list begins with Paul Giamatti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Michael Fassbender, Alfre Woodard, and Brad Pitt, who also co-produced. But two actors are worth spotlighting. The first is Chiwetel Ejiofor, who plays Solomon Northrup. I’ve seen Ejiofor on stage as well as screen. He has become a favorite of mine, and I would be surprised if he does not earn a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his passionate performance. In fact, in these beginning stages of Oscar hoopla, there are three black actors who are in the race for Best Actor nominations. In addition to Ejiofor, they are Forest Whitaker, playing the title character in THE BUTLER, and Idris Elba, playing the title role in MANDELA: LONG WALK TO FREEDOM, a biopic that also was screened to much acclaim in Toronto.

The second 12 YEARS A SLAVE cast member is Lupita Nyong’o, who plays a young slave girl named Patsey. 12 YEARS A SLAVE is Nyong’o’s first feature. According to the Internet Movie Database, she was “born in Mexico, raised in Kenya, and educated in the U.S.A.” Her performance as Patsey is jaw-droppingly exceptional. It even manages to rise above the rest of a film that in and of itself is so outstanding on so many levels.

However, be forewarned: There is graphic violence in 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Northrup and his fellow slaves are beaten sadistically and mercilessly and, at the Toronto festival public screening I attended, the woman sitting next to me hid her face in her hands during these scenes.

I am a critic of on-screen violence-- if it is present merely as show, in order to grab the attention of and dazzle the viewer and certainly if the viewer does not come away with a sense of the impact of that violence on the victims or their loved ones. But such depictions are necessary in a film like 12 YEARS A SLAVE. For one thing, they capture the true depth of the casual brutality that was such an intrinsic part of the slavery experience. Just as importantly, the film’s director, Steve McQueen, and screenwriter, John Ridley, vividly depict the effect of that violence on those who are victimized by it.

This really should be no surprise, as McQueen is a very in-your-face filmmaker. He takes on strong material-- Bobby Sands’ hunger strike in an Irish prison in HUNGER and sexual addiction in SHAME-- and he presents this material in an upfront manner that is jarring but very necessary to the subject matter.

And this subject matter, as depicted in 12 YEARS A SLAVE, is a sad but very real part of American history. As Lupita Nyong’o observed, during the Toronto festival press conference for 12 YEARS A SLAVE, “It was hard to go there. But it was necessary.”

Rob Edelman teaches film history at the University at Albany. He has written several books on film and television, and is an associate editor of Leonard Maltin’s Movie and Video Guide.

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