It is award season and time for us to look at uncomfortable truths and feel terrible. Or we could also watch celebrations of debased young men ripping off honest Joes of their life savings. Based on Solomon Northup’s memoir of the same name, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Northup, a freeborn African American in New York who is kidnapped in Washington in 1841 and sold to slavery in the Deep South. His two masters, the seemingly-kindly William Ford and the sadistic Edwin Epps both use Christianity to sanction slavery. All the horrors of slavery are there to see, the whippings, the lynching, the rapes and the casual cruelty. Knowing it is based on a memoir and the title that supplies a time frame, ensures a cold comfort at the end of a harrowing 134 minutes. The film is handsomely produced — among its nine Oscar nominations are one for production design and another for costumes. The cinematography, editing and sound are top notch. The acting is spellbinding. And leading the acting honours are Chiwetel Ejiofor as Northup, Michael Fassbender as the brutal Epps and Lupita Nyong'o as the doomed slave Patsey — all three have rightly been nominated for Oscars. Benedict Cumberbatch as the wishy-washy Ford seems to be stuck in his consultant detective’s skin and is not as effective as he usually is.
While slavery is a part of American history, the exploitation has a universal resonance. The plight of the slaves in antebellum South though distanced by time and space will find echoes in any amount of subaltern stories and songs from India.
At the end of the movie, one is left wondering whether this is the story of one man who managed to defeat the system, or is the story of all those nameless people crushed by it? If it is one man’s story, then we can have hope, but not if it is about the faceless numbers.
Genre: Historical Drama
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul Dano, Paul Giamatti, Lupita Nyong'o, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt
Storyline: A freeman is kidnapped and sold to slavery
Bottomline: Not easy viewing