Unni and the Box: 12 Years A Slave

Sometimes you see a story that traumatizes you— not because you can relate or hope to never have the privilege but because it’s real. So real, that this very fact, cripples you. One of the film’s stars, Michael Fassbender was quoted as saying, “After the screening … I went into shock for about two hours.” When I read this, I was relieved, delighted the actor’s reaction wasn’t far from my own.

And that shock is one, I pray to carry always, as a permanent fixture on my brain. I never want to move beyond the sheer horror this film evokes or the isolation it manifests, for though this isn’t my story, or my journey, it reminds that as much as any man is free today, he could be bound tomorrow.

***If you haven’t seen the film, I suggest you do so, for though the thoughts below are light on significant spoiler, the rapture of this film is found through experience.

I hate to admit that I was “excited” to see this film because of its nature and content but I unabashedly was. I rarely venture to subject myself to such narratives for the simple fact that I know myself. I know my attitude and nature and well, films about slavery make my blood boil but for this film I made an exception. An exception based on caliber. The combinations of adaptation, director and thespians couldn’t be overlooked. However, I didn’t watch any previews or read swaying materials about the content, nor had I read the original work (which is now on my short list) and I’m glad I didn’t. For 12 Years a Slave is a story and vision, unlike any other film about this time than I’ve ever seen before.

View Date: November 2013

In A Word: Evocative

Cast: Chiwetel Ejifor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Adepero Oduye, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Garret Dillahunt, Sarah Paulson

Trailer: 12 Years A Slave

Performance: With a cast like this one, the idea of not loving this film never crossed my mind and with each subsequent scene, my list of loves grew.  Of course, this film belonged to Chiwetel Ejiofor, but his performance was elevated next to his fellow co-stars, Michael Fassbender and  Lupita Nyong’o.

Ejiofor is the protagonist and narrator, where no intrusive force is heard but certainly, this story is told within his mind’s eye, therefore, this world of slavery and its interpretation is through the eyes and thoughts of Solomon Northup. Ejiofor was able to capture every hidden and buried emotion from astonished to bewildered, then resolve and despair. Yet, within every take (until that last scene) there was an unmasked unshakable pride that made his a character to invest wholeheartedly.

Fassbender played the irrevocably insane slave master Edwin Epps, obsessed with one of his female “property” Patsey but what caught my attention most was the electricity between he and Ejiofor.  Their scenes together were magnetic and pulsating, hinging somewhere between suspenseful and sadistic.

Experiencing them together made me anxious and excited for it was evident these were two equals in caliber and craft, which transformed into perfection onscreen, creating the follow-through of Northup’s intelligence and perhaps superiority to his enslavers. There is no doubt that Fassbender brought to life a personality that while completely beyond comprehension, is unforgettable for his callous unbalanced idiocyncrasies, not to mention his wayward and hypocritical morals.

DF-02868FD.psdAlso, on the Epps’ plantation, there’s Nyong’o’s Patsey the object of the Master’s insatiable lust. What draws you to this portrayal isn’t entirely the basis of this woman’s circumstance but what it encompasses; the toll of being birthed into slavery. Watching Patsey as she struggles to hold onto her innocence and sanity, as its stripped away by cruelty and malice— that transition was masterfully done by Nyong’o.

Nyong’o pulls you into Patsey’s disparity to the point that just as you begin to identify with her reticence, the veil is slowly peeled and she expounds on her plight, into a beautifully heart-wrenching reveal, coupled with the undercut of violence that renders her opinions moot but her words penetrable and her goal liberating.

Therefore any and every moment these three actors had a shared shot, however, minute, there was a synergy that lifted from the screen giving the feeling that something transforming and transcendent was occurring.

Garret Dillahunt, Alfre Woodard, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Brad Pitt also appeared, giving worthy performances, Pitt being the weakest but with little more to do than hammer nails and lend a listening ear, perhaps the criticism is more with the “star” cameo than anything else. Yet, with all the brief cameos, Adepero Oduye’s stint as Eliza, a woman stripped from her children, remains the most raw. Her role was short but used as an embodiment of several themes in this point in history from survival and mourning to single motherhood and Oduye gives this role breadth, depth, sincerity and determination.

Verdict: When I finished this film, I wanted to knot into a ball and sob. Sob for my nation, for my people; for anyone and everyone who’s ever experienced anything close to what I’d just viewed— for 12 Years A Slave is not for the revolutionary in you. It doesn’t make you want to rise up and take action. It doesn’t make you angry or volatile. For, these were none of my reactions, instead, it made me sit down, sit back and take stock— to remember who I am, where I’m from, how I’m perceived and remain poised for what may come. This film was about one man’s experience, but it could have been any man, from any country, who finds themselves stripped of what my country calls “inalienable” rights.

I know that statement sounds insolent, given the subject matter, for African American slavery, in many respects, was very specific and extraordinary, even the way this protagonist (and many like him) found themselves in bondage, is terribly unique to America and Black folks but at its core, this film is about being robbed, rendered helpless, and imprisoned for existing. One could say, that is the issue with American slavery as a whole but this film, examines the grave but staggering difference between “knowing” and “believing,” “experience” and “desire.” A dichotomy that still separates and classes Black people today.

But when looking at the larger scope, Solomon Northup is a character much like who I am, mentally miles away from the scars, tears and bondage of people, but physically and socially, closer than he could ever think to imagine.

What caught me off guard with this film is that it started in the wrong place, for Solomon began as a “free” man. A man living and loving his family normally, tucking them in at night, kissing his wife. There are so many “moments” in this film, it’s hard to encapsulate them all and stamp any type of message to it, however, I will say McQueen was able to tell a story filled with destruction, enslavement, despair, hopelessness and tragedy, in a way that rocks you to the core but takes its toll much more after the fact than during. To me, this reflects slavery’s effect on societies, on peoples, on nations.

There are snippets of personalities and lives Northup is privy to, given the involuntarily nomadic nature of slavery,  that brings about threads of exposure to the destruction and luxury of concepts modernity takes for granted, mainly human survival, mental fortitude and will. For Northup encounters masters with heavy burdens and kind hearts, as well as evil handlers chomping to wield and circumvent their authority.  I said before, that I wanted to cry once the film ended, but during the film, only two occurrences had tears scratching at my eyes. Yes, there were beatings and lashings, hangings and the like, but the moments that welled me over were much more subtle than those; instances of introspective but universal identification and sorrow.

The greatest moment was  during a funeral, as the slaves gathered singing one final song for their friend and Solomon begins to chime in, a demarcation of his relinquished recalcitrance. Then and there, he fully joined those people; his people. He stepped over the wall erected between them by the blessing of birthplace and accepted their equality. It’s a moment even now, that evokes an emotional response, for there’s more to this action than acceptance or releasing his past but a profound acknowledgement of his present state and position. It’s not that Solomon gave up or gave in, or even deemed to forget but it’s the mental rest that awashes his face at the recognition of his current existence. Throughout his story he struggles with the powers and institutions that bind him, but his greatest battle was with his mind, determined to remain separate and indelible and it’s there, on that rocky plain as the slaves clapped to send off one of their own, he relents, with a bellowed ‘Roll Jordan Roll.’

: My thoughts on this film are divided, between what one may interpret and what I believe should be understood. Therefore, I think my biggest issue, lies with my mixed feelings about Steve McQueen’s approach to the film [ie  trying to figure out what McQueen wanted from me]. Like I said, this isn’t  Amistad, therefore, the overshadowing question for me was always— How was I as the audience to interpret and envelop this film? Is this first person? Am I an interloper or documentarian transported to the 19th Century? Or is this simply the respective third eye?

At times I found myself, outside the view, unsure of how I should think or feel about what I was seeing. For, I felt McQueen desired my 21st Century perspective, not a 19th Century empathy, yet in some shots, that was all I could muster. But oddly, that is also something I loved about the experience of 12 Years, the parallelism of oxymoron. And since my viewing, I’ve  concluded this confusion is interwoven into the action and life of Northup’s story.

The film takes you through several eerily quiet beats, sometimes to the point of uncomfortable, which I adored and relish within modern (mainstream) filmmaking. Events sped and slowed, with characters removed or idle,  whereby everything felt important and then not at all, while the passage of time unidentifiable. And though this was, I imagine, intentional, it was noticeable and in some cases, felt incongruous to Northup as a character— at least, as an individual. For concerning time and space, he was a learned man, a man who could read and write, then given liberties based on his capabilities. Therefore, knowledge of the date, or even a curiosity of world events, was inevitable but remained ambiguous(even with newspapers loafing about). McQueen makes little to no attempt to highlight time’s passage, leaving the audience to assume and dawdle relying solely on the truth of the title until the very end. But, as slaves, there was nothing  more individualistic or monumental than the monotony, heat and bondage of  slavery’s brainwashing and inevitable breaking of the human spirit.  And while this was never properly examined, it was rooted and established outside the film’s timeline and purview. Therefore, my initial concession to this omission and treatment leans toward an attempt at an authentic reflection of the location, era and warp of slavery.

Recommendation: This film isn’t for the feint of heart but for the strong of mind, one that I would urge anyone to watch, unreservedly. There’s violence and unconscionable realities, that hopefully will scar and mark you for life, but in a way that arms and strengthens and enlightens.

In an article in USA Today, Ejiofor said:

I just want people to come to it without all of that,” Ejiofor says. “Without all the buzz and the hype and the this and the that. It’s the story of a man going through an extraordinary circumstance. And I do feel it needs to be engaged with in its own quiet, reflective way.

A statement I find rather perfect, for, I couldn’t agree more.


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