reviewed by Tom-Tom
This is one of the most painful yet important films any human being could possibly watch. It is not melodramatic nor heavy handed. The editing is cut so trim that it has almost an episodic unfurling of history about it. Chiwetel Ejiofor gives the performance of his life, a full on, all-in encapsulation of a life. Solomon, a freeman fiddler is invited to Washington DC to perform. After a night of drinking with the gentlemen who offered him the gig, he wakes up in chains without identification being told that he is no longer Solomon Northup but a slave from Georgia. As any of us would do, he resists and is beaten perhaps, for the first time in his life. His bloody clothes are taken from him and with them any proof of his free life. Like all gentlemen of Solomon’s scholarly class, he is erudite and well mannered but these skills hinder him rather than help him in the long period of servitude awaiting him. He will meet many terrible, hateful, little, puny, cowardly men and women he will have to call Master and Mistress. His highfalutin vocabulary will set him apart from slave and most white men but will endear him to no one.
His first master, played by Benedict Cumberbatch is as culpable and weak as his second Master, played with creepily vile venom by Michael Fassbender who demonstrates once again, that he can and will do anything. He is a drunk and a lewd, child molesting monster who barely can keep his marriage together. His wife is another piece of work who is jealous of the object of his affection, played by Lupita Nyong’o with sincerity and pointed expression. How horrible to be raped over and over and then on top of it have the lady of the house revile you by throwing decanters at your head and attempting to scratch your eyes out all without the ability to do anything about it.
Solomon does try to do something about it when a shitkicker played with impunity by Paul Dano attempts to beat Solomon for no good reason other than because he thinks he can. With relative ease, Solomon strips him of his bullwhip and proceeds to flog the hell out of him. It is a satisfying scene with immediate blowback. Dano’s character and two others hogtie him and prepare him for hanging. They get him as high as his tiptoes before being stopped by the seemingly heroic overseer who cows the men at gunpoint but then leaves Solomon to hang while the Master Cumberbatch is called. It is a terrifying scene: Solomon choking, putting all his strength into not letting his weight sag enough to fully hang himself. People pass freely in the background tilling the ground, leading various beasts of burden, seemingly completely unaware of Solomon’s suffering. The overseer stares nonplussed waiting for the Master to come or Solomon’s death.
The years bleed by as Solomon tries all matter of schemes to achieve his freedom, trusting the wrong people, putting his faith so desperately in any one who might help him get home to his family. There is another scene which finally breaks the barrier between Solomon the free man criminally enslaved and the others born into slavery and of course no less criminally enslaved where all sing in remembrance of a fallen comrade. This realization seems to finally dawn on him as he joins the singing in tears. The episodic nature of the events of the film make the entire 12 Years flow smoothly albeit painfully which makes the emotional payoff at the end all the more satisfying.
I felt, drawn into Solomon’s world that yes, he didn’t deserve the fate he experienced nor did any other of the kidnapped, erudite, well mannered American citizens. Aside from Nyong’o’s Patsy, not much of a case is made for those who aren’t erudite or well mannered or can’t read or write to not deserve slavery. Either the director is taking the hardship of slavery for those born into it for granted and invites the viewer to do so too or was merely intent on portraying Solomon’s story to the letter not branching out to anyone else. In any case, the viewer is led, perhaps by the latter method into empathizing with mostly the kidnapped rather than the sadly defacto prisoners of an obscene State sanctioned institution.