They stand there dank-faced and silent, outfitted in their rough sack-cloth, listening as the plantation’s overseer instructs them on how to properly cut sugarcane.
“12 Years a Slave”‘s opening scene portrays the banality of plantation life – slaves being taught how to work the fields had to have been a mundane sight for those who lived in that time. But Platt’s (formerly known as Solomon Northrup) eyes, veiled with grimness, reflect the true horror of the scene. Behind his mournful gaze, one can almost see the atrocities that await him as a slave.
The film’s strength lies beyond the fact that it is the disturbingly true story of Solomon Northrup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a respectable, free-born man from Saratoga, New York who was kidnapped and sold into slavery. Director Steve McQueen is masterful at directing incredibly talented actors and actresses who know how to add dimension to stories and bring life to their roles in his character-driven films.
Ejiofor more than rises to the occasion in this film. There is something powerfully moving about Northrup’s eyes. Even when they are still, they immediately draw the audience into both his interior and exterior worlds throughout the film.
Through his perspective, we watch families being torn apart and naked black bodies being inspected like cattle. We see slaves beaten till their torn backs run red and slaughtered like useless livestock. We come face to face with the resignation that certain death must be better than this hell on Earth as Patsey, played beautifully by Lupita Nyong’o (whose name is buzzing on everyone’s lips), begs Northrup to rescue her from Master Epps’ (Michael Fassbender) sexual perversity.
Throughout all of this barbarity, we feel Northrup’s anguish over waking up one day without his family, freedom, and name and finding himself seemingly imprisoned for a lifetime in the terrifying inhumanity that was slavery in America.
Northrup’s nightmare finally ends when Samuel Bass (Brad Pitt), a white carpenter, is willing to help Northrup contact his friends and family.
But his triumphant rescue elicits a tense medley of joy and despair. How can Northrup truly rejoice knowing that he is leaving his fellow slaves behind with the savagely cruel Master Epps?
How can the audience really celebrate, knowing that Northrup’s tale of liberation from slavery’s brutality was exceptional and that millions more suffered a completely different fate?