Gone With The Wind is the most popular film of all time still to this day if you talk about adjusted dollars. The Birth of a Nation was the most popular film of all time for a considerable time prior to that. Both films could be said to have a benign view of slavery and white supremacy, although it would be easy to use much stronger language than that. In most circles, both films have been considerably discredited due to this myopic view. Both films almost completely ignore or disregard the incredible cruelty of using human beings as a commodity for commerce. Even that doesn’t begin to address the evil. Slavery continues to subjugate and demean up to 30,000,000 people worldwide to this very day, but it was sanctioned by law in much of the United States until after the Civil War. The horror, indignity and monstrous unfairness of it all cannot be overstated. Those involved in the abolitionist movement prior to the Civil War were driven by a fanatical and fervent desire to expose the abominable hypocrisy that was prevalent. A small core of free men and women of all races risked their lives to fight the abomination.
12 Years a Slave was a book that was written as a true account of the blind evil of the time. It is now a movie by young director Steve McQueen (that’s his real name; he is obviously not the dead actor). In Saratoga Springs, a young highly regarded musician has a beautiful family and home. His name is Solomon Northup, and he has a good life. He is intelligent, friendly and eager to make the most of his talents. He is persuaded to assist two entrepreneurs with a venture and travel to Washington, D.C. After much success and celebration he wakes up to find himself in chains, and so begins the 12 years. He is transported on a slave ship and changes hands among owners over those 12 years. He is, after all, property. He is now part of a “peculiar institution”.
The cast is uniformly excellent whether playing inherent evil or suppressed anger. Some of the blatant villains are played by Paul Giamatti, Paul Dano, Sarah Paulson, Garret Dillahunt and Michael Fassbender. The trading in and cruel subjugation of slaves is ingrained in the DNA of many of these characters. Fassbender (Edwin Epps) is a plantation owner who eventually has the biggest impact on Northup’s life. He is a complex character that is never less than vile but often conflicted by guilt and apathy. It is a role that will give Fassbender a clear chance to win a best supporting actor nomination.
Benedict Cumberbatch (William Ford) is another “owner” of Northup but is also a Baptist preacher. His clear conflict with the hypocrisy of his situation is far more evident. He participates in a system he has a clear distaste for but still feels unable to change. Alfre Woodard (Harriet Shaw) is a mistress and de facto wife of another plantation owner which allows her to distance herself from the beatings and brutality in her own past. Brad Pitt, one of the producers of the film, plays an abolitionist carpenter from Canada working on the Louisiana plantation. Pitt (Samuel Bass) expresses the fear he feels. He speaks his mind and aids Northrup but knows full well it is a dangerous game.
Chiwetel Ejiofer (Samuel Northup) has always displayed exceptional brilliance as an actor over the last decade, but the real breakout is newcomer Lupita Nyong’o (Patsy) as a radiant yet tortured slave.
It may be taken as a criticism to say the film directed in McQueen’s increasingly admirable style is austere and dark, but it is not. It is not a criticism but praise. The vision is clear, concise and commendable. There is great balance and humanity as it navigates through the 12 years. The cruelty is displayed as honestly as possible. All the participants are human beings with clear weaknesses, but we never shrink from their humanity. They are ensnared in a system that they may accept but mostly do not fully understand. The use of human beings as property continues today but not in such a barbaric and sanctioned form. It is a part of the history of the world throughout the ages. It is easily comparable to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany or cultures worldwide that still openly trade humans as property in one form or another. It is easy to understand the nearly insane fanatical battles waged by abolitionists such as John Brown over the ages. They could not reconcile a belief in God with a tolerance of a perversion of all that is good. For someone like John Brown, it was a holy war in the name of God to fight slavers with the last drop of the blood of his family.
12 Years a Slave only hints at the resistance to slavery, instead focusing on a nonchalant complicity in the horror. Eventually Northup is freed and gets to write his remarkable book which eventually leads to this even more remarkable movie. Last year, two pretty good films (Django Unchained, Lincoln) attempted to deal with an unvarnished look at this subject. 12 Years a Slave must now be considered the definitive work.