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Film Review

12 Years a Slave

Slavery became deeply embedded in America from the very beginning and was only ended by a bloody four year Civl War. Slaves were brought to Jamestown in 1619 and by the mid 18th century there were more than one million slaves here, mostly working on indigo and tobacco plantations in the South. But as tobacco growing became more difficult, slavery began to ebb. However in 1793, Eli Whitney changed everything with his invention of the cotton gin. Cotton, which previously had not been particularly profitable because it was so labor intensive to remove the seeds, became immensely profitable, partially due to the mechanization of England's textile industry. Slavery had never been widespread in the North, and by 1804 the last northern state had banned it, although great fortunes in New England and New York had been made from the slave trade. Congress banned the importation of slaves into the United States in 1808, but the domestic slave trade continued to flourish in the South. By 1860, there were 4 million slaves in the South, half in the cotton producing areas. In other words, one out of every three persons in the South was a slave, at the same time that slavery had been banned in the North for over 50 years. Slavery was vital to the South's economy and culture, and in fact, was the single largest economic entity in the entire country. So while a Northern businessman might invest in equipment and buildings, the South invested in slaves, which doomed their economy to be almost totally dependent upon agriculture.

Stay with me, there is actually a film review here, but the issue of slavery is so central to our heritage that it deserves more than a quick paragraph. By the 1830's, abolitionist groups were forming in the North, especially in New England, although the average northerner was unconcerned with the issue because it was far away in the South. The underground railroad, helping slaves flee the South, was firmly established, and northern churches began to speak against slavery. But in the South slavery was a cultural norm, and southern churches routinely used the Bible to justify slavery. As the western territories began to be settled, slavery became a much more contested issue. The North was determined to prevent the spread of slavery to the territories and new states, while the South was equally determined to permit slavery in those territories. The country was sliding toward conflict, and southern states were talking openly of seccession if Lincoln were elected. Lincoln was elected in 1860, and the war followed, beginning with the South Carolina militia firing on Fort Sumter. Both sides were convinced the fighting would be brief, with each side believing that the other would rapidly concede. Four bloody years later at least 625,000 men from both sides had died in combat or from disease (the equivalent of 6 million dead with our present population) and at least that many more were wounded before Lee's surrender at Appomattox in 1865. The 13th Amendment (1866) abolished slavery, and the 15th Amendment (1870) gave black men (but not women) the right to vote. But after Reconstruction, a resurgent white supremacist movement in the South passed Jim Crow laws, which effectively prevented blacks from voting and cemented a dual class system with often violent intimidation (i.e. the KKK) until the Civil Rights era of the 1960's.

In the 1930's, the WPA used writers and journalists to interview 2300 former slaves, which produced a comprehensive view of slavery. But narratives written by slaves prior to the end of the Civil War are very rare because teaching a slave to read was a serious crime in many southern states. Few written narratives are known to exist, and only one by a woman. One of these accounts was written by Solomon Northup, a free black man with a family, who was kidnapped and taken to Louisiana. His account, "12 Years a Slave", published in 1853, shocked the North, angered the South, and sold 30,000 copies. After the Civil War, his book was forgotten until a historian rediscovered it in the 1960's and published an annotated version. Today, Northup's book is a key reference for the study of slavery in America.

The reality of slavery is not often appreciated today, and depictions on film have been far less cruel than the reality. Early film makers bought into the Southern myth of happy slaves, well cared for by their owners. Even later films shied away from portraying the reality, because few would want to see that reality. The fantasy films, like "Django Unchained", were worse because they trivialized slavery. So instead we have tended to internalize softer images, such as in "Gone with the Wind" , which portray mostly caring owners. But now, Steve McQueen, an accomplished black English screen writer and director known for two strong films "Hunger" (2008) and "Shame" (2011), has taken Solomon Northup's book and turned it into a powerful eloquent film that unflinchly depicts the cruelty of slavery. It is Northup's odyssey through hell.

"12 Years a Slave" opens with a group of black men lined up, being shown how to cut sugar cane. Solomon Northup is among them. They begin the grueling work of cutting cane, while one sings to provide a rhythm. They all sleep on the floor, packed together in a small shed. Then the film flashes back to Northup, a middle class black man in Saratoga, New York, in 1841. He is tucking his two children into bed, and going about his life in what seems to be a fairly integrated community. He is a carpenter and a talented fiddle player. A white friend introduces him to two other men who claim to have a traveling show, and need a fiddler for a short engagement in Washington. This sounds like a good opportunity that will only take him away for a few weeks, so he accepts. In Washington the men take him to dinner, ply him with wine and probably drugs, and he wakes up the next morning in chains in a brick basement. He is badly beaten, and the camera leaves him screaming for help out a high window. In a stunning shot, the camera is outside, moving from the window, up the outer wall, and clears the roof, with the half completed Capitol Building coming into full view.

Northup is taken south on a paddle wheeler, along with many other slaves, all chained together and packed tight in the hold. In one of many powerful scenes, the steam ship is only shown by shots through the rotating paddle wheels. A slave auctioneer buys him from the ship's captain, and he is given a name. A savvy slave tells Northup to be quiet, and never let them know you can read or write. Families are separated, and Northup is sold to a plantation owner, which begins the second phase of his captured life. He will pass through a number of owners, each with varying degrees of cruelty. McQueen has depicted slave life unflinchingly, and some of the scenes are so brutal it is difficult to watch, but none are gratuitous. Other scenes show the lack of dignity and casual cruelty, such as a large group of slaves, naked in a slave pen, trying to wash themselves. These contrast with scenes of great natural beauty, as if to show the evil in the Garden of Eden. Most shooting was done on location in Jefferson Parish in Louisiana, and the cinematographer takes great advantage of the often beautiful settings.

The acting deserves an entire paragraph. Northup is played by an English actor, Chiwetel Ejiofor; he is remarkable and sure to be nominated for an Oscar. There is so much fine acting here by fine actors. Paul Giamatti plays a banality of evil slave auctioneer; Benedict Cumberbatch a feckless plantation owner, the first of Northup's masters; Paul Dano a cruel overseer; Brad Pitt a sympathetic indentured workman; and Michael Fassbinder plays a cruel plantation owner often given to drunken rages, whose equally cruel wife loathes him. All of the characters are real, fully dimensional characters and just jump off the screen. Fassbinder, whom McQueen has starred in his past films, is incandescent here, and runs off with the film during his scenes. If I have a criticism, it is that many of the characters seem stereotypically ennobled or cruel rather than real people. Or perhaps cruelty was the norm. The dialogue is right out of the printed 19th century word, but it seems unlikely that most people would have spoken in that formal fashion. But these are quibbles about a truly great film. McQueen's pacing is fast and tense. This 2 hour 14 minute film goes by quickly, and there is a sad coda which helps place the story in history. The soundtrack is lovely, with a combination of haunting spirituals and elegiac melodies.

I loved and was very moved by "12 Years a Slave". McQueen has given us a wrenching, but very fine, powerful work that will become an important film, certainly one that no one will or should forget. What an irony that it takes an English director to show us what American filmmakers have evaded. It seems as if I always urge viewers to see films on the big screen, and certainly true here. Playing widely, including the Kabuki and the recently reopened Embarcadero.

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