This season seems to be a time for telling it like it really was about slavery in America. Lee Daniels’ The Butler, Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave and Henry Louis Gates’ The African Americans on PBS are all no-holds-barred looks at one of America’s most shameful periods in history. To my mind, this one is the most hard-hitting and devastating. It is a long way for the British director from his second film, Shame, but closer to his first feature film, Hunger, about the 1981 Irish hunger strike, both of which he wrote.
This is such a nightmarish, impossibly terrible story that one would be tempted to doubt it as overwrought fiction. But the fact that it is taken from the memoirs of Solomon Northrup which were later published we have no choice but to watch in abject horror at what this man, and countless thousands of others, had to endure under the system of slavery as it existed prior to the Civil War. As I have learned from the Henry Louis Gates series - this was not an isolated experience. There was a particular market for Negroes not born into slavery - although it is hard to see why since any signs of anything beyond abject servility was savagely beaten out of them.
The marvelous Chiwetel Ejiofer gives a rivetting performance as Solomon Northrup, a refined, educated, free man of color, living a respectable life in Saratoga Springs, NY with a wife and two children, who is kidnapped and abruptly finds himself in chains being sold for hard labor in the cotton fields of the deep slave-owning South. Ejiofer makes the best case against Botox injections for actors. This man can evoke the whole spectrum of emotions with only the muscles between his eyebrows. And given his role in this film,which requires him to keep quiet and reveal as little as possible about who he is and what he knows, this is a crucial survival skill. What is revealed is the nobility and decency of this man in the face of relentless physical, psychological, and spiritual torment which, after twelve long years remained alive within him. And those eloquent brows and expressive eyes have spoken volumes beyond words.
To be fair, there were degrees of abhorrent behavior among the slave dealers and owners. Northrup’s first owner, Mr. Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a fairly decent man. But when he is forced to repay a debt which he cannot afford he turns Northrup over as payment to the notoriously volatile and sadistic Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder) who unleashes all of his terrible fury on his slaves. There are many scenes which are so hard to watch that I had to close my eyes. Brad Pitt plays a Canadian abolitionist who is ultimately responsible for Northrups salvation. Alfre Woodard has a cameo as a black mistress who has figured out to have it her way and lives in her own house with her own servants. Paul Giamatti plays a successful slave dealer with the sang froid of a livestock auctioneer.
By film’s end, we are so inured to the widespread practice and acceptance of extreme cruelty and inhumanity among the whites toward the blacks that one can finally only conclude as did Hannah Arendt vis a vis Nazi Germany, that it was the institutionalizing of the system of slavery which permitted - even encouraged - ordinary men to behave in abhorrent ways. She labeled it the “banality of evil” and refused to damn individuals - but rather the herd mentality of “groupthink” - which effectively shut down individual conscience and the ability to form moral distinctions upon which to make moral choices. It is a time in history to be remembered and learned from in order not to repeat the past . For societies to be vigilant when signs of this type of collective insanity begin to appear is the time to raise the red flags, step back, and have a moment of introspection. This is more than the story of one man’s struggle against the evils and repression of a corrupt society. It is an indictment against the corrupting influence of power and greed on society. While it may be hard to watch and could have been shorter, it should be seen.
Review by Belle McIntyre